Co-founder, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
June 20, 2019
Compassion is aimed at alleviating suffering — that of others or ourselves — and can be ferocious as well as tender. These two poles are represented by the dialectic of yin and yang. In traditional Chinese philosophy, these two seemingly opposite qualities– soft and hard, passive and active, feminine and masculine – are integrated in a non-dual manner, with the understanding that all people contain both essential energies. A metaphor for yin self-compassion is a mother tenderly comforting her crying child. We hold ourselves with love so we can be with our pain without being consumed by it. The converse metaphor for yang self-compassion is that of a momma bear defending her cubs. When we tap into this fierce energy it gives us the strength and power needed to stand up and speak our truth.
When most people think of self-compassion, they imagine its tender yin form. Yin self-compassion involves “being with” ourselves in a compassionate way. We comfort and soothe ourselves when in pain just we might do for a friend who is struggling. We give ourselves our own kind attention and care rather than cutting ourselves down with self-criticism. And we validate our pain, acknowledging that our suffering is worthy of attention. Most of us are experts at doing this for others, and research shows we can also learn to do it for ourselves, greatly enhancing our mental and emotional wellbeing as a result.
Compassion also requires action: protecting, providing, and motivating change to alleviate suffering. It’s easy to see when we think of how we compassionately act to help others: courageously stopping a bully from picking on someone vulnerable, working three jobs to put food on the table for our kids, or inspiring the students we teach in the wrong part of town to go to college and pull themselves out of poverty.
According to my theoretical model, the three essential components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. We first need to be mindfully aware that we’re suffering, then we need to respond to our pain with the same kindness we would show to a good friend we cared about, and finally we need to remember that suffering is part of the shared human condition — that no one is perfect or leads a perfect life. These elements feel different depending on how they are being used to alleviate suffering. With yin self-compassion they are felt as loving, connected presence. Self-kindness means we tenderly care for ourselves when in pain. Common humanity involves recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human condition. Mindfulness allows us to be with and validate our pain in an open, accepting manner. When we hold our pain with loving, connected presence, we start to transform and heal.
When self-compassion is aimed at protecting ourselves, however, its yang form feels quite different; it feels like fierce, empowered clarity. Self-kindness means we get angry and protect ourselves. We stand up and say, “NO! You cannot harm me in this way. It’s not okay to harass me, abuse me, treat me unfairly.” Common humanity helps us to recognize that we are not alone. We don’t need to hang our heads in shame. We can stand together with our brothers and sisters in the experience of being harmed and be empowered as a result. And mindfulness manifests as clearly seeing the truth. We no longer choose to avoid acknowledging the harm being done to us because we’re afraid of rocking the boat. When we hold our pain in fierce, empowered clarity, we speak up and tell our stories, to protect ourselves and others from being harmed. In many ways the #MeToo movement can be seen as the collective arising of the female yang.
Like a tree with a solid trunk and flexible branches, we need to stand strong while still embracing others as part of an interdependent whole. We need love in our hearts so we don’t become hateful, but we need fierceness so that we don’t let things continue on their current harmful path. It is challenging to hold loving, connected presence together with fierce, empowered truth because their energies feel so different, but we have to do so if we are going to effectively stand up to patriarchy, racism, and the people in power who are destroying our planet. As advocated by great leaders such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., we need both simultaneously.