Self-Compassion and Quakers

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Like many others, I was drawn to the Religious Society of Friends by its compassionate work with people in need. As an undergraduate in the 1960s, I witnessed that compassion first-hand by participating in several AFSC projects, including visiting mental-hospital patients in the Bay Area and working with disadvantaged children during Freedom Summer in Memphis, Tennessee. Those experiences inspired my later career as a child psychologist. Yet almost from the beginning, I have found it difficult to live up to Friends’ idealism; and over the years, I have grown to perceive among Friends a hidden, unmet need – for self-compassion.

With its high code of ethical conduct, Quakerism is no easy path. You only need to glance at a few of our models, like the people described in Friends’ publications, including this one, to see that Friends are regularly people who have given up the easy comforts of middle-class life to work on third-world medical teams, visit the incarcerated, or organize inner-city soup kitchens. The people in our meetings include teachers, physicians, counselors, and social workers – all service professions with high rates of burnout. Our Quaker meetings can help.

With the publication of her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (2011), professor Dr. Kristin Neff became an acknowledged pioneer in the study of self-compassion. Her work at the University of Texas has engendered hundreds of new studies on the topic, and its application has spread to the training of counselors and therapists. Neff was spurred into this field by her observations of growing levels of self-criticism in our society, which is increasingly based on competition and comparison, starting in childhood. Even people who have made it by societal standards can live in fear of being toppled by others just behind them. Such fear follows harsh self-judgments by our inner critic – ones that can be so severe that we tell ourselves things we would not utter even to terrible enemies. Ask any therapist: in most instances of anxiety and depression, self-dislike is a key factor.

Quakers are not immune. Most of us came to the Society of Friends as adults, refugees from creeds that didn’t work for us or even left emotional scars. Many of us grew up in families where we encountered physical or emotional abuse. Many of us need spiritual and emotional healing. Yet our meetings don’t often provide that. One reason lies in the common misconception that self-compassion is the same as self-pity, and so, it should be avoided. However, as Neff and many others have clarified, self-compassion is not self-pity, but rather, a realistic caring for ourselves. Neither is self-compassion a recipe for laziness (another common misperception), for instead, self-compassionate people are demonstrably more productive than those who are self-critical. Neither is self-compassion selfish or narcissistic, for when people begin to treat themselves kindly, they actually become less self-focused in their daily lives and find they have more energy to attend to others.

Simply put, self-compassion is extending toward one’s self the same kindness that one would show toward a good friend in pain. Imagine the situation: Someone you care about confides over a cup of coffee the news of a job loss or failing health. As they describe their situation, you notice their head lowering, the suffering in their eyes. Most likely, you would listen with care and patience, rather than reacting with harsh judgments or impatience. Now envision that you are facing yourself across that table, listening to yourself conveying some painful news. Finally, consider similar conversations you actually have had with yourself, and consider how you have befriended yourself in those times – or have not.

To grow in self-compassion, we need first to realize that the patterns of our inner dialogues are hard to change. Those patterns are primarily unconscious, shaped over decades of mostly nonverbal inputs, which started in early childhood. They are based not only on what our earliest caregivers said, but also on how they looked at us and touched us. Moreover, we interpreted those early communications without awareness. Consequently, learning to love – both ourselves and others – is not an intellectual activity, but a lifelong personal journey.

The unconscious is tricky, and our deepest beliefs about ourselves have tangled roots. We can even get caught up in being self-critical about being too self-critical! Clearly, beating yourself up for beating yourself up is not going to work. These inner entanglements can be so numerous and twisted that we may need a therapist to help us find our way out of them.

However, our Quaker meetings can also help promote the flourishing of self-compassion. Kristin Neff describes three components of self-compassion, which provide a useful framework for Friends to work from:

Mindfulness is the first component of self-compassion. Neff defines mindfulness as “the clear seeing and nonjudgmental acceptance of what’s occurring in the present moment.” Mindfulness is essential for self-compassion because our thoughts and feelings often serve as masks for other, deeper assumptions and feelings. For example, anger frequently serves to mask sadness or fear. We cannot be truly self-compassionate about our thoughts or feelings without being aware of what they are and what their disguises are. As we begin the journey of self-exploration, it is common to feel overwhelmed by self-derogatory beliefs we have carried around for years, like hundreds of mussels clinging to a slow-moving ship. That realization may initially be discouraging, but it is actually a positive step, giving us needed information for growing a sense of freedom to be who we truly are.

The next time you are feeling pain or suffering, notice where in your body those feelings seem to be centered. Also notice what your bodily sensations are, such as tightness in certain areas or changed breathing. Further, notice any inner messages that accompany your feelings of pain or suffering, such as, “I should have been better prepared,” or “I’m worried about not being accepted.” To notice these internal sensations and messages requires slowing down and making repeated efforts to get in touch with yourself. Beginning each day with a mindfulness meditation practice can help.

A simple practice of mindfulness meditation can also be reinforced at the outset of Quaker meeting for worship, when Friends are centering down. While others filter in and take their seats, Friends can spend fifteen or twenty minutes simply tuning in, being aware of pre-occupations that are present, and sensing their breathing and the present moment. This can clear our minds to be more open later to vocal ministry and the movement of the Spirit.

Responding to yourself with kindness is Neff’s second component of self-compassion. This might seem self-evident, but in reality, we continually slip into unawareness, and we may often feel we deserve a certain pain, should be able to tough it out better, or should steel ourselves to ignore it. So it helps to express kindness to yourself deliberately and intentionally. Through self-talk, you can encourage yourself with expressions like: “May I be free of suffering.” “May I be happy and peaceful.” “May I accept myself as I am.” Repeated over time, these expressions can have a powerful effect on our self-perceptions. Adding to the effectiveness of this kind of self-talk, some people find it helpful to comfort themselves nonverbally while saying those words, such as by crossing one or two hands over their chest or abdomen.

Recognizing our common humanity is Neff’s third and maybe most neglected component of self-compassion. It expresses the Buddhist teaching that life for all of us includes pain and suffering as our inevitable lot. When we mistakenly believe we’ve been singled out for a particular misfortune, we can greatly magnify our emotional pain. Whether for a minor problem like a traffic ticket or a major problem like cancer, we can reduce our suffering by reminding ourselves that other people have had and will have this same experience. Seeing our interconnection with everyone else on the planet can help us extend our compassion for humanity to ourselves.

Over the last several years, I’ve spoken to various groups – Quakers, Episcopalians, Unitarians, and others – about the importance of self-compassion. One question that participants always raise is this: Isn’t it possible to be kind to others while treating ourselves harshly? Certainly. Research confirms this, and our everyday experience does too. We’ve all known kind, self-sacrificing individuals who put themselves last in almost every undertaking. That said, people who fail to take sufficient care of themselves pay a high price, including increased fatigue, resentment, and burnout. On those grounds, self-care could be justified by saying that it gives us more energy to perform more altruistic acts. However, life gives us a more fundamental justification for self-care. Fundamentally, life is meant to bring us joy and fulfillment. Our pursuit of those is good and natural.

I would like to end by sharing a few specific pieces of advice about self-compassion, which participants in my workshops have found helpful.

First, look for ways to being kind to yourself every day. If you think that would be self-coddling or that you don’t deserve it, then notice your resistance nonjudgmentally and start small. You might start by making a list of things you used to do that once gave you joy, but that you’ve discarded. Then think of some new ones. I like a small book by Donna Watson, 101 Simple Ways to Be Good to Yourself, which is full of excellent ideas that cost nothing.

Second, understand the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion. Self-esteem refers to the value we hold for our positive qualities like intelligence, athleticism, or occupational achievement. Self-compassion is quite different and involves caring for ourselves when we are down, suffering, or defeated. When nothing seems to be going right, self-compassion still can warm us; it is unconditional. To me, it expresses the God within, our inherent worth, apart from worldly successes or the attitudes of others.

Third, feelings of self-compassion are stored in the body. Consequently, self-compassion requires you to be aware of and take care of yourself in somatic ways. When feeling down or anxious, take some time to sense where in the body your feelings lie, and take a few deep breaths. When an activity becomes stressful, take a break, maybe to go for a walk outside or take a trip to the gym. Remember to activate your senses in positive ways – with good meals, a massage, or a weekend in the mountains.

Finally, healthy assertiveness has its place in life. We may need to stand up actively against those hurting or taking advantage of us. Although Friends practice nonviolent action and speech, that doesn’t mean we must suffer repeated personal attacks to our detriment. In situations that threaten your physical or emotional safety, it’s important to do or say something to halt a behavior.

Examples are abundant.  I recall a recent incident when the clerk of a meeting responded to a volley of critical comments from another Friend. The clerk replied, “Please understand; I am trying to do my best with a difficult job. If you can see any positive aspects about my performance, I’d like to hear about those too.” His simple, nonaggressive appeal touched me.  More tragically, the many stories emanating now from the #MeToo movement vividly show the need for fierce self-compassion to resist abusers.

George Fox counseled us to walk cheerfully over the world, seeking that of God in everyone. It would be absurd if the regard we show others was not also meant for ourselves.   ~~~

Joe Morris retired from California State University, Northridge, as a professor of psychology. He is a longtime member of Santa Monica Friends Meeting (PYM). Joe derived this article from a workshop he gave at Southern California Quarterly Meeting, Fall 2017. He would like to present this workshop again, and he invites Friends to contact him at: dpj1942-AT-earthlink-DOT-net.