One of the most important elements of self-compassion is the recognition of our shared humanity. Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means “to suffer with,” which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect, that we are all fallible. Why else would we say “it’s only human” to comfort someone who has made a mistake? When we’re in touch with our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal. This is what distinguishes self-compassion from self-pity. While self-pity says “poor me,” self-compassion recognizes suffering is part of the shared human experience. The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain that you feel in difficult times. The triggers are different, the circumstances are different, the degree of pain is different, but the basic experience is the same.
Sadly, however, most people don’t focus on what they have in common with others, especially when they feel ashamed or inadequate. Rather than framing their imperfection in light of the shared human experience, they’re more likely to feel isolated and disconnected from the world around them when they fail. When we focus on our shortcomings without taking the bigger human picture into account, our perspective tends to narrow. We become absorbed by our own feelings of insufficiency and insecurity. When we’re in the confined space of self-loathing, it’s as if the rest of humanity doesn’t even exist. This isn’t a logical thought process, but a type of emotional tunnel vision. Somehow it feels like I am the only one who is being dumped, proven wrong, or humiliated.
And even when we’re having a painful experience that is not our fault — perhaps we’ve been laid off from our job because of the economic downturn, for instance — we often irrationally feel that the rest of the world is happily employed while it’s only me sitting at home watching re-runs all day. Or when we become seriously ill, we may feel like sickness is an abnormal state that “shouldn’t” be happening. (Like the dying 84-year-old man whose final words were “Why me?”) Once we fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well, we tend to think something has gone terribly amiss when they suddenly don’t. Again, this isn’t a conscious thought process, but a hidden assumption that colors our emotional reactions. If we were to take a completely logical approach to the issue, we’d consider the fact that there are thousands of things that can go wrong in life at any one time, so it’s highly likely — in fact inevitable — that we’ll experience hardships on a regular basis. But we don’t tend to be rational about these matters. Instead, we suffer, and we feel all alone in our suffering.
The recognition of common humanity entailed by self-compassion also allows us to be more understanding and less judgmental about our inadequacies. Our thoughts, feelings and actions are largely impacted by factors outside of our control: parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental conditions, as well as the demands and expectations of others. After all, if we had full control over our behavior, how many people would consciously choose to have anger problems, addiction issues, debilitating social anxiety, an eating disorder? Many aspects of ourselves and the circumstances of our lives are not of our intentional choosing, but instead stem from innumerable factors that our outside our sphere of influence. When we acknowledge this reality, failings and life difficulties do not have to be taken so personally.
As Einstein once said:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
1. Quote taken from Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children, Alice Calaprice (Ed.), Princeton University Press, 2002.
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