Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer have dedicated years to studying, researching, and teaching self-compassion. All of this dedicated effort and passion have resulted in the Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) program, a research- and skill-based eight week training similar in format to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) but focused on this key component of how we meet our own suffering.
Drs. Neff and Germer trained Michelle Becker, a San Diego Marriage and Family Therapist and MBSR teacher, as the first teacher of the program. She, along with Dr. Steve Hickman, the second teacher trained by Neff and Germer.
In describing how thoughts arise from actions, Michelle noted that “when something bad happens, it is like being hit by an arrow, difficult and painful. Unfortunately, a second arrow, our thoughts and reactions, follows the first. Many times, it is these thoughts and reactions (i.e. “this shouldn’t be happening,” “you failed,” “you’re so lazy,” “maybe you’re stupid”) that cause the bulk of the suffering. The event, the first arrow, is painful, but how different would it be if instead of that second arrow, we just attend to the fact that the first arrow hurt?
Compassion is a response to witnessing suffering. Becker notes that “showing kindness and compassion to ourselves makes such a difference in our lives. Even simply responding by acknowledging ‘Oh wow, that hurt,’ radically changes our experience”.
Through mindfulness and self-compassion training, a space is formed between event and reaction, and within that space, Becker explains, we are able to choose how to react. “When we create the space, it’s the difference between reacting and responding. So when we choose to respond, can we be kind to our own selves?”
Kindness and compassion are skills that can be developed. Rather than continually judging and evaluating ourselves, self-compassion involves generating kindness toward ourselves as imperfect humans, and learning to be present with the inevitable struggles of life with greater ease. It motivates us to make needed changes in our lives not from a place of motivating ourselves with punishment, but because we care about ourselves and want to lessen our suffering. But becoming more compassionate requires breaking down old habits and building new mindful skills and habits.
Step one in developing self-compassion is mindfulness. In order to change a habit, we must become aware of its existence. We need to become aware of whatever sensation, thought, or emotion is causing suffering. Once we identify our suffering, the second step is to remember that we are not alone in our suffering. Pain and suffering are part of any life, and therefore our suffering is a simply a normal part of belonging to the human race.
The third step is to choose to respond with kindness toward our own selves. Much like we would respond with kindness for a friend who is suffering in the same way. In Michelle’s words, “It’s really that simple. Not easy. But really that simple.” Awareness and compassion are learnable through education and practice.
MSC is based on research. Early clinical studies indicate that MSC practice will increase happiness and lessen anxiety and depression, as well as supporting and improving mindfulness overall.
Even people who have taken MBSR will benefit from MSC. Michelle commented, “Both programs have the core elements of mindfulness and compassion. Compassion is not trained explicitly in MBSR, but it is important. We do these practices that help us become aware of where we are, and to the extent that where we are is painful. It would be a little bit cruel to become aware of pain and just meet it with harshness instead of offering ourselves the compassion each of us deserves.”
In addressing which program to take, she remarked, “People will benefit from both. There’s a lot of overlap between MBSR and MSC and it’s about which door you choose to take first. For some people, starting with MBSR would be preferable, and for others, starting with MSC would be preferable. If there is a lot of harshness, a lot of self-judgment and self-criticism, probably your experience with MBSR will be deeper and you’ll get more out of it, and it won’t be quite as painful, if you start with MSC.”
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