If compassion is more than a general sense of kindness, more than an omnidirectional attitude of goodwill, then it means witnessing another person’s distress – an individual’s distress – being willing to learn the details, through our own presence and attention, about that person’s unique experience – and wishing for the alleviation of their suffering. But that’s not everything entirely. Compassion also involves a way of thinking about who or what is responsible for the suffering at hand. To be truly compassionate, we must acknowledge that the other person faced a difficult circumstance, one which challenged them and caused them pain – a circumstance which was at least partially outside their control.
To understand what compassion really is, we might consider its opposite. Perhaps the cruel opposite of compassion would be to see a person in distress and to tell them, “It’s all your fault. You made it happen. You deserve it!”
To be compassionate requires a suspension of blame. When a person comes down with a rare and unexpected illness, of course, there’s no thought of accountability. But in other cases of distress – a failed romance, a lost job – the more we learn about the situation, the more we might notice how the person’s own behavior contributed to their suffering. If we feel strongly that they deserve the unpleasant outcome they got, if we think “they had it coming to them,” then we’re not being compassionate fully. We need to see and acknowledge the aspects of the situation that were out of that person’s control, like how their date behaved, or how their employer behaved, and even how they themselves behaved… due to uncontrollable circumstances like the personality traits that they never elected to have.
We can still have compassion for a thief, all while believing that the thief’s behavior warrants the prison sentence they got, but we might have to work to achieve this compassion. This compassion would come from zooming out and seeing that no one “deserves” the combination of circumstances that would lead them to steal. Even if they “did it,” they didn’t deserve the fate of being born into this world – an innocent infant – and somehow arriving at a life situation that would make them do it. The same is true of a person who suffers distress that seems purely internal, created by and within the self, like when someone is overwhelmed with anxiety, but with no psychiatric diagnosis to blame. An acquaintance might say – “You’re worrying too much – your troubles are all in your mind – you’re bringing this all on yourself,” but that’s not compassionate. To be compassionate requires beginning with the wish that they not suffer, then acknowledging that the mind is a difficult thing to operate, and it comes with no instruction manual – that to have trouble with one’s thoughts is natural and unavoidable, but that no one “deserves” to have this trouble.
If we take compassion, just as we hold it for other people, and if we apply it to our own selves, what happens next?
Self-compassion might seem like a good and healthy thing to practice, but the attempt to practice it can create confusion and fear, for good reasons.
If self-compassion means having more than a general sense of kindness toward ourselves, more than a vague, nondescript goodwill directed inward, then it means acknowledging our own suffering, and wishing for the alleviation of that suffering. But it’s more than that. To be truly compassionate toward our own self, in the same way we would be compassionate towards another person, we must understand that we faced a difficult circumstance, one which challenged us and caused us pain – a circumstance which was at least partially outside our control.
That’s where it gets tricky. Even knowing all the details we know about the situation and how it came about, including through our own involvement, we must stop blaming ourselves, stop thinking we deserve it, if we’re going to be truly self-compassionate. When we say “It’s all my fault, I own this,” we’re not practicing self-compassion, just as if we said to someone else, you own what happened to you, this wouldn’t be very compassionate either.
But isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to take ownership, to have accountability for our actions, to accept blame where blame’s due? Isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to believe in our own agency, to believe we can change our situation for the better, and to always focus on doing that? Isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to look on the bright side, seeing potential and possibility in any situation, no matter how dark, rather than concentrating on that darkness and how it has dragged us down unavoidably?
Although self-compassion might sound like it should fit well with other attitudes that form a wholesome outlook on life – optimism, perseverance, responsibility – it may be difficult to reconcile with those others. Optimism asks us to see what’s promising in our circumstance, but self-compassion requires that we acknowledge forces outside of our control that hold us back. Perseverance means sticking with our struggle, believing we can get through it, tuning out our pain and cultivating resilience, but self-compassion means acknowledging our limits, accepting that those limits may have been reached. Responsibility means believing that we can control our fate, but self-compassion requires accepting that sometimes we can’t.
“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If there’s one quote that’s powerful enough to ease suffering, perhaps that’s the one. But what should a person do before they’ve been granted the “wisdom to know the difference?” How should we behave when we’re not sure – and can find no quick way of discovering – whether our current predicament is one of those things we can change, or one of those things we cannot?
We might feel we should withhold self-compassion until there’s clarity on this. If the situation is really in our control, then we should fight, we should be brave, we should believe ever more strongly in our own agency. Now might not be the time to tune into our suffering. Now might not be the time to reflect on the difficulty of our circumstances, and the random undeservedness of that difficulty.
Of course, bravery does not require that we completely numb ourselves to our own pain; optimism does not require us to ignore our own hardships or to pretend our circumstances aren’t challenging; responsibility does not require us to deny that some failures were unavoidable; but each of these attitudes involves a choice of where to focus our attention, emphasizing some things and de-emphasizing others.
We might switch back and forth between these perspectives, so that they seem to fuse together, but we may struggle to blend them fully, because they may be incompatible at a microscopic level, in the way oil and water can be whipped together into a convincing emulsion, but never fully mix.
We can try out the lens of optimism, remember what it showed us, and try out the lens of self-compassion, remember what it showed us, and combine the images in our secondary imagination. But it is difficult to look through both lenses at the very same time – on the one hand seeing our agency and power to improve a situation while at the very same time accepting our powerlessness in the face of an adversity that caused us to suffer.
Among the positive attitudes mentioned, self-compassion may be the one that is the most challenging to our ego, because it means accepting that we have less agency over a situation than we would like to have, or than we feel obliged to believe we have.
Let’s say we lost a tennis game. Losing caused us pain. Self-compassion would ask us to see how there were things outside our control that created this situation, but we may not be ready to admit them – we’d rather think that we had full agency over the game and we just blew it, in an isolated stroke of bad luck. We’d rather think that when we tell ourselves we’re “going to win” we can usually make that happen. We could observe that our opponent had been more skilled than us – but we might not want to admit this. We could observe that our practice routine hadn’t been as effective as we intended – but we might not want to admit this either. And we could accept that the loss really hurt us and we don’t like losing – but we’d rather maintain a self-image that we’re a good sport. Insomuch as self-compassion requires that we acknowledge what we couldn’t control in the situation, it actually requires giving up our ego attachments.
We might also fear where self-compassion leads. On the one hand, there’s the risk that self-compassion could devolve into self-pity, where we become consumed with the challenges we face, thinking of them as unfair and unjust, and feeling hopeless about our chances for improvement. Where is the line between self-compassion and self-pity? Because we can’t always see where that line falls, we might be afraid of moving in that general direction. No one likes a “whimp,” a “whiner,” or a “sore loser” and we don’t want to be one of those.
On the other hand, there’s the risk of self-indulgence, where we become too forgiving of our own bad behavior, in a way that invites more bad behavior. Why didn’t I do the dishes? I wasn’t feeling like it. No big deal. Why didn’t I pay my taxes? The paperwork was too tedious. No big deal. Why didn’t I win the tennis game? I didn’t really feel like practicing. But I forgive myself?
As children we are taught that certain things are unacceptable, like stealing. And it’s important that we maintain these learned boundaries as adults, now reinforced by reasons we fully comprehend. But what does it mean when we classify a behavior as “unacceptable”? It is a promise to ourselves that if we ever did that thing, we wouldn’t forgive ourselves. And the knowledge that we wouldn’t forgive ourselves then becomes a stopgap, keeping us from doing it if we’re ever tempted. And since we know this promise of non-forgiveness is a powerful stopgap, we might try to use it for other things that are less bad than stealing, but more tempting in our own lives — things we just really want to avoid. We might say that “giving up” is unacceptable — giving up on, say, an essay writing project, or a baking contest, or a business venture – “If I ever gave up, I’d never forgive myself.” Which is to say we’d never allow ourselves to have self-compassion regarding this broken promise and the pain that ensued. That pain would be ours, entirely “on us.”
The fear of self-compassion is that once we start forgiving this, forgiving that – if we can truly forgive ourselves for anything, or at least if we can take a loving stance toward ourselves in any situation, regardless of what happened, then we’d be giving up the boundaries – the electric fences – that keep us in order, keep us moving in the right direction down the straight and narrow path.
I was meditating this morning, but I wasn’t as committed to it as I could have been. You could say I didn’t take ownership over my meditation session. I reached far across the table in front of me to grab my phone a few times. There were no urgent events demanding my attention, but I lazily allowed myself to get caught up in unforced distractions, picking up my phone just because I was feeling “fidgety.” Afterwards, I felt bad about what had happened. You could say I “suffered” in an itty-bitty, forgettable sort of way, but still in a way.
Looking back on this, I could practice self-compassion. I could notice that concentration is hard for humans. In trying to meditate, I was trying to do something difficult. Efforts like this don’t always succeed and I was experiencing that difficulty. And hey, it wasn’t me who invented mobile phones and made them addictive.
But there’s a sense that I shouldn’t let myself off the hook. I should have “tried harder” because I am capable of better. Since I know my phone can be distracting, why didn’t I put it in another room? Why did I keep scrolling when I could have stopped? If I had just been more committed – not thinking I could “get away” with a sloppy approach and forget about it later – I might have had a better outcome.
So what should I do now? Should I have self-compassion, focusing on what a profound challenge concentration actually is, and seeing how my wavering in the face of that challenge was natural? Or should I have accountability, realizing I could have done better and should do better next time, no excuses?
Fortunately, there’s a way I can take the perceived risks of self-compassion off the table.
I can see that although I “failed,” I still believe in the possibility of doing better – self-compassion isn’t going to take that optimism away.
I can see that although I “failed,” I’m still trying – I’m still in the game, still going to practice tomorrow morning, and the next – and self-compassion isn’t going to take that persistence away.
So if I’m afraid of self-compassion because I think it will make me lazy and self-pitying, I can completely take those risks off the table. But I have to work to take those risks off the table. I have to actually still be hoping, I have to actually still be trying. In doing those things with self-compassion, I can now do them with greater ease.
With its focus on things beyond our control, things which caused us to suffer unavoidably, self-compassion might seem contrary to optimism, which would have us look on the bright side, appreciating our agency and potential for improvement. But self-compassion can indeed engender optimism. Because once we acknowledge that our situation is challenging – yes, genuinely challenging for anyone – then we can stop feeling like “It’s all me – I’m just bad at this.” If it’s a truly hard situation then there’s hope for us. Then our failures don’t indicate that it’s only we who are inadequate. Our failures simply indicate that we’ve been facing a true test. So we can see our failures as events to be expected rather than as evidence that we’re not capable or competent and we never will be.
What’s the point of all this? It’s to show that being overly hard on ourselves is not just a character weakness and not just a bad habit that we can overcome by deciding not to do it. It’s the result of a philosophically deep tension between self-compassion and other virtues we might hold dear. There is a way to resolve that tension in part. But if you struggle with self-compassion, the first thing to realize is – self-compassion is hard – and if it’s hard for you, that’s because it’s hard in general – and that’s not your fault!