The Silver Thread : Self-Compassion

When we train for Mindfulness, we are told that the Mindfulness process consists of (1) learning to observe one’s mind, and to observe the actions of others and to do so (2) “without judgment”.

Judgment begins with a “hedonistic appraisal”, in the words of Buddhist psychologist, Jack Engler. A hedonistic appraisal means that we react to our thoughts with positive or negative feelings. A thought will feel good or bad, and that feeling determines what we do with the thought. Bad thoughts we push away through repression or projection (aversion). Good thoughts we embrace (attachment). However, either way, when we have a strong judgment toward a thought, we dwell on that thought. Instead of thoughts being transient, they become obsessions.

In Buddhist psychology, dwelling itself is the enemy. Dwelling, in the form of attachment or aversion, takes us away from our rightful focus on the here and now; it creates unease, and attempts to make permanent the impermanent. Allowing ourselves to dwell on a thought also leads to more obsessiveness. Such dwelling is the source of our unhappiness. Happiness depends on letting go and flowing with our experience as it presents itself in the present.

The problem is that from childhood on, we are taught to make judgments about our thought-feelings. I call these the “shoulds”. We are taught that we should feel this way or that or we should not think that way. Thus judgment is part of our conditioned mind. To return to a natural state of mind we must learn to undo judgment.

One approach to letting go of judgment is self-compassion. Self-compassion involves treating oneself like a friend generating kindness as a substitute for judgment.

Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, has conducted research on the power of self-compassion. She has found that self-compassion has three elements.

1) Self-Kindness: Being kind, gentle, and understanding with ourselves. Conversely we avoid being harshly critical and judgmental.

2) Our Common Humanity: We must recognize the common core of being human. We are inherently connected with others in the experience of life. We are not alone in our suffering. As a clinical psychologist, I interact with people of different races, sexes, and socio–economic status. Yet regardless of these differences, all are common in their suffering; all humans deal with painful issues which may be different on the surface but common in their core experience of pain.

3) Mindfulness: Neff defines this quality as holding our experience in “balanced awareness”, rather than ignoring our pain exaggerating or judging it.

In her book, “Self-Compassion”, Neff describes various techniques for cultivating self-compassion. Furthermore, she scrutinizes these techniques through objective research demonstrating both the physical and psychological benefits of self-compassion practice.

When we treat ourselves like a dear friend with respect, kindness and love, it mitigates day to day suffering. This is the opposite of self-judgment, which magnifies suffering, and does not contribute to problem solving.

Michael Abramsky PHD, ABPP

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About the writer: Dr. Michael Abramsky

Michael Abramsky PhD, ABPP is a licensed psychologist with 35 years of experience treating adolescents and adults for anxiety, depression and trauma. He is nationally Board Certified in both Clinical and Forensic psychology. Dr. Abramsky also has an MA in Comparative Religions, and has practiced and taught Buddhist Meditation for 25 years.

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