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Facing Our Dark Side

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Some Forms of Self-Compassion Are Harder than Others

By Richard Schwartz

Compassion is one of those warm, fuzzy words referring to qualities that often seems in short supply in the ever-accelerating rough and tumble of daily life today. Basically, it means actually applying the golden rule and putting into practice the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself”—something that most of us have had at least a nodding acquaintance with since our earliest exposure to religious training. In contrast, self-compassion is a much less familiar notion and not so easily grasped. It can even seem opposed to compassion for others, as if being kind to ourselves precluded being kind to others. In fact, the idea of self-compassion—reminiscent of the treacly uplift of the self-help industry at its worst—can make many of us a bit queasy. Think of the mantra of Stewart Smalley, the character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Isn’t this just another expression of the narcissistic self-indulgence that already pervades our society?

Although it’s true that self-compassion may begin in a simple, generic stroking of our wounded selves—there, there, you’re not so bad—achieving a genuine state of self-compassion is a more challenging undertaking than many realize. More than the comforting phrases you offer yourself when stressed, genuine self-compassion is a journey into the multiple parts of yourself—the good, the bad, the ugly, the confused, the frightened, the abandoned—so as to make friends with those parts on the deepest level.

The primary obstacle to treating ourselves more kindly is the fact that most of us are addicted to self-criticism. Who among us hasn’t had the experience of learning to be judgmental of ourselves as a teenager, when we’re so worried about how we’re going to appear to others? At that stage, the stakes seem so high that if someone is critical of us, we’re likely to start picking ourselves apart, trying to look or act perfectly so we won’t become a social pariah. And, as is well known, for people who’ve been abused—who’ve perhaps been abusers themselves—this vigilant self-criticism can easily turn into self-hatred. This self-directed animus serves no good social purpose: the dark, hidden places inside don’t generally make people better or nicer to others; just the reverse. But getting to know, understand, and forgive these dark selves can have deeply transformative healing powers for the whole person, making us better, kinder, more compassionate to others than before.

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4 comments

  • Comment Link Sunday, 15 November 2015 09:42 posted by Linda Watts

    I love Richard Schwartz and IFS. This was a great article and validated the work I do with my clients. Thank you.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 15 October 2015 20:18 posted by Jerry Rosser

    Thank you for this insightful, simple yet clear article on the steps to integrating our subconscious life with the Self. I especially liked your discussion on countertransference and the therapists own inner family process.

  • Comment Link Friday, 02 October 2015 11:31 posted by Damien Demidoff

    Yet another amazing article by Dr. Schwartz that helps me to not only make greater sense of my own inner world but also to support others in doing the same.

    :)

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 29 September 2015 17:58 posted by Liz Doyne

    what a wonderful, clear and very human article. Dick Schwartz speaks about such complicated inner dynamics with a simplicity and clarity that inspires us to know that we can sit with anything, in ourselves and in our clients, even when the waters get turbulent and the threat of capsizing is alive. This is the kind of self compassion that makes sense to me, and to use his great word, doesn\'t get treacly.