Compassion: the gift that makes a difference

In this season of gifting (and receiving), I can’t help but wonder if what people really need in the midst of all this stress is compassion, not only for themselves but for each other too. What I see instead is a lot of self-indulgence.  So what is the difference between self-indulgence and self-compassion and why is it important?

To indulge from time to time is good, maybe even necessary, especially to balance out an extended period of work.  This is often associated with play and playing can easily spur the creative process while instilling a sense of relaxation and regeneration.  Life, after all, is art!

However, in this society we often get indulgence confused with a kind of “taking care of ourselves” that goes way beyond what is necessary in the moment.  Kristin Neff, Ph.D, a psychologist and author of Self-Compassion (2011), explains self-indulgence as any activity that has long-term negative consequences to our health and well-being:  “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of ice cream!” Giving into immediate gratifications, like overeating, doing drugs, or simply being a couch potato, are just some of the ways we think we are being good to ourselves when in fact we are contributing to our pain.

I would like to add that another aspect of self-indulgence is giving into our fears, many of which are not grounded in actuality but are instead, rooted in our unprocessed pain.  These often come in the form of our security, self-esteem, or autonomy issues, like worrying that we might not have enough, ruminating that we aren’t of value, or expending lots of energy defending ourselves against the environment.  These existential fears, though worthy of our attention, can consume us to the point of excluding other nourishing experiences.  When this happens we could say that we are involved in self-pity, which is also different from self-compassion.

So what is self-compassion?  Self-compassion is cultivating a kind and gentle approach to our everyday suffering, whatever form it currently takes, but especially to our core, existential fears.   As Dr. Neff further explains: “Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life’s difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.  When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.”

When we are mindful of the truth of our reality, we begin to experience our common humanity, which is to say, we begin to see and empathize with the fact that we are all suffering because reality constrains us all!  This, then, allows us to extend our loving-kindness to others.  And in this day and age of consumerism and the toll it takes on us especially during the holiday season, extending compassion may be more valuable than the next, expensive gift.

For more information on Dr. Kristin Neff, please visit her website:

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