What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term ‘self-compassion’? Depending on your upbringing and life experience, your answer may range from ‘self-indulgence’ to ‘absolutely necessary.’
I first came across this concept after watching Dr Kristin Neff’s TED talk, titled “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.” She reveals that the tide of self-esteem that has flooded Western psychology has actually backfired. Research has shown that the unintended consequence of self-esteem is the staggering epidemic of narcissism and bullying. How did self-esteem lead to this?
Dr Neff defined self-esteem as a contingent way of viewing ourselves. So to have high self-esteem, we need to feel better than everyone else. This opens up a landmine of comparison and put-downs. To feel good about being attractive, we feel the need to look down on other less attractive people. To feel good about being intelligent, we look down on others who aren’t as intelligent as us. To give an Islamic spin on this, to feel like we’re good Muslimahs, it’s easy to judge others who appear to be less grand examples.
So how exactly does the self-esteem pandemic impact on us, as Muslims? For those of us who grew up or lived in the West, the impact is huge. I absorbed the concept of self-esteem as easily as I ate my breakfast cereal. I grew up thinking that the only way I could feel good about myself was to beat someone else.
In high school, this meant always having to get top grades and feeling awful if I didn’t. As I moved to university, my expectations for myself grew higher and higher. My self-imposed treadmill of unattainable standards was an exhausting one. Alhamdulilah, a series of very painful personal, academic and spiritual crises kicked me right off that treadmill. My tribulations placed me on a journey of healing and discovery, which leads me back to this concept of self-compassion.
Dr Neff defined self-compassion as having three important parts:
Treating ourselves the same way we would treat a friend – with compassion.
2) Common humanity:
Asking ourselves, “How am I the same as others?” instead of “How am I better than others?” Being human, by definition, makes us imperfect, along with our imperfect lives. Difficulty and failure is very much a shared human experience.
This can be defined as being with what is in the present moment. Being aware of our hurt feelings gives us the opportunity to respond with self-compassion.
So with all of this very sensible evidence for self-compassion, why do so many of us prefer self-criticism instead? Dr Neff explained that many of us fear that self-compassion makes us lazy and unmotivated to change. In reality, being self-critical doesn’t provide long-lasting change. Rather, self-criticism only kicks us when we’re down.
Dr Neff continued to describe what chronic comparison and self-criticism does to us. When we feel under attack by our own self-criticism, our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol, a typical flight-or-fight response. In the long-run, this wears down our immune system and increases our risk of developing heart disease and depression, to name a few.
Self-compassion, in comparison, allows our bodies to release oxytocin and opiates. Being hugged, whispered to and comforted is far more likely to bring our stress levels down.
Our Beloved Prophet (SAW) was sent as a mercy to the worlds. If there is one human being who embodies the perfection of self-compassion and compassion to others, it would be him.
This beautiful hadith on mercy points to our Creator’s Mercy:
The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said: “The ones who are merciful, The Most Merciful will be merciful to them. Be merciful to those who are on the Earth, and the One who is in the Heavens will be merciful to you.” (Tirmidhi)
Merciful treatment to those on the earth includes being kind to our own selves, as well as being kind to others.
Why is it so important to practice self-compassion?
It would be exhausting to constantly feel like we need to keep beating others to feel good about ourselves. As we all know, life is full of setbacks and disappointments. Plans go awry. People let us down. We let ourselves down. The dunya, by definition, is imperfect, and always will be.
Choosing to cultivate a habit of self-compassion makes it much easier for us to navigate the ups and downs of living in this world. By choosing a merciful response to ourselves and to others, we get to better our relationship with Allah (SWT), ourselves and with others. Self-compassion gives us hope in Allah’s Mercy, makes us more patient with the failings of others, and best of all, gives us the space to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes. Imagine a world where Muslim parents model self-compassion to their children, who then learn how to be kind to themselves and to others from a very young age.
One way to nurture this important habit is to display compassion towards those around us. I invite you to reflect on some common life challenges. How would you respond in each scenario? How could you respond with more self-compassion?
Ayman came home from school, dejected. He told his parents that he failed his end of year science exam.
Harsh response: “Ayman, what’s wrong with you? We’ve spent so much money on your private schooling and on tuition, and you still failed your exam? You’re such a disappointment. You won’t amount to anything.”
Result: Ayman may try to study harder as a band-aid response to his parents’ reprimand. In the long-run, he may develop a fear of failure and a deep dislike for study.
Compassionate response: “Ayman, you must feel awful. We’re so sorry you didn’t do well. How can we help support you in doing better?”
Result: Ayman is overcome with gratitude and thanks his parents for being so understanding. He is motivated to work harder for his future exams. He accepts that failure is part of life, but believes that he has what it takes to bounce back, especially with such a supportive family.
Layla’s tumultuous five-year marriage ended. She returned to her parents’ home with her young daughter, Amal.
Harsh response: “We’re so ashamed of you. What will the neighbours say? You’ve disgraced our family’s honour by being a single mum.”
Result: After hearing her parents’ harsh response, Layla’s shredded sense of self-worth is even more tattered. Her self-criticism is worsened by the criticism of her family. She spirals into a deep depression, and is unable to look after her daughter.
Compassionate response: “Layla, welcome home. We’re so sorry you went through so much pain. We still love you and want to be there for you and Amal. You can stay here for as long as you need to heal. How can we help you?”
Result: Layla can breathe a sigh of relief and allow herself to mourn the loss of her marriage. With the loving support of her family, she is able to heal and be present for her daughter.
Ridwan lost his job after making a series of poor decisions. He came home and broke the news to his wife.
Harsh response: “I can’t believe you lost your job! You’re so irresponsible. How are we going to pay the bills now?”
Result: Ridwan feels even worse about losing his job. His wife’s criticism adds another layer to his own self-loathing.
Compassionate response: “I’m so sorry you lost your job. We’re a team, and I want you to know that I still love and respect you. How can I help?”
Result: Ridwan feels so relieved that he has his wife’s support. He is more likely to forgive himself and learn from his mistakes.
Life coach, Sayeda Habib, provides tips on how we can nurture ourselves and bring about emotional balance.
Raidah Shah Idil is a writer, poet and creative instructor based in KL, Malaysia. She is the author of Finding Jamilah and The Story of Yusuf. Her writing and poetry have been published in The Elephant Journal, The Feminist Wire, Lip Mag, Daily Life and Venture Beat.