In the following interview, psychotherapist, yogini, and laughter Yoga leader Sampada Desai makes a powerful argument for why it is beneficial to be kind to ourselves.
Throughout our lives we long to be loved more deeply and to find a greater sense of connection with others. We look to others to meet our needs of love, not realizing that it is our own love we need to cultivate first. When we depend solely on others for love, we are bound to be disappointed and hurt. Besides, it is not the responsibility of others to love us. It is ours.
Self-compassion means to extend to one’s self the same loving, unconditional positive regard we extend to our loved ones. It is about being our own loving best friend, motivating us to take affirming steps toward self-care, personal growth, resilience, and inner peace.
Yogaville: Why do you think that it’s sometimes easier to have compassion and kindness for others than for ourselves? In general, do you think that modern culture promotes self-compassion?
Sampada: There are several reasons for this, one of them being that we are socialized and conditioned to be compassionate to others. Compassion for others is glorified as a virtue, while self-compassion is seen as immodest, vain, selfish and indulgent.
We live in a society that defines success as the acquisition of material possessions, financial abundance, accolades, or number of degrees earned, placing enormous pressure on us to be successful. When we fall short of this success (which we will), we may beat ourselves up with harsh criticism to do better. We buy into the adage, “No pain, no gain.” Or we believe that self-compassion is for the weak, requiring us to power through or tough it out. While this approach may work for a few, it undoubtedly comes with a great deal of frustration and angst.
Women are especially susceptible to not practicing self-compassion. Seen as traditional nurturers and caregivers, they feel guilty if they are self-compassionate.
Family upbringing can also influence self-compassion. Individuals who grew up in families with a great deal of conflict, criticism and harsh discipline tend to be punitive to themselves. For them self-compassion is an unnatural, foreign concept. For others, the wounds are so deep they can’t imagine anything providing relief.
Historically the Eastern practices of Buddhism and Hinduism have emphasized the importance of compassion. In the words of Buddha, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete,” and in Yoga Karuna means compassion—not just for others, but for one’s self. While there still exist societies where self-compassion is valued, it is fast becoming a rarity in our globally connected, highly competitive world.
Yogaville: Why is it important to be your own best friend? Is it especially significant on the spiritual path?
Sampada: The main reason—Buddha said it the best—is that life is hard. While life is enormously more difficult for those living on the streets compared to those living in palatial homes, not one of us is exempt from the shared human experience of loss, pain, grief, aging, and death. While our problems may not disappear, self-compassion can help us accept reality with equanimity.
Self-compassion helps us grow spiritually by first allowing us to love all parts of our self—the good, the bad, and everything in between. By being kind and gentle with ourselves, we can be kind and gentle to others. We start to notice that despite our unique individuality, we are connected to the larger universe in our happiness and in our sorrow. This then is bound to have a ripple effect on others.
The practice of Yoga emphasizes Ahimsa, which means nonviolence—not just towards others, but also to the self—in thought and action. This means to not inflict violence through physical harm, derogatory comments, negative thoughts, or emotions like anger, guilt, and shame. When we’re hard on ourselves, we build a wall between the self and others, creating alienation and separation. This separation keeps us from knowing that we are not alone, adding much suffering to our spiritual existence.
On the spiritual path, self-compassion permits us to live in the moment. Yet most people are either living in the past or some distant future. We often hear statements like, “If I’d had better parents, I’d be happy” or “I’ll be happy when I marry the perfect person or when I retire.” Happiness, joy and contentment don’t lie in the future. They are available to us in the here and now, even during difficult times. Begin with self-compassion.
Yogaville: What kind of benefits does the practice of self-compassion have for ourselves and for our relationships with others?
Sampada: The benefits are countless! One of the best benefits is a sense of well-being that has nothing to do with whether you live in a big house or make a lot of money—because you can have all that and still not be happy. Self-compassion has a magical quality of transforming one’s suffering into peace. Speaking from my experience as a psychotherapist, when my clients bring self-compassion into their lives, they report greater resilience and fewer mental health problems. What is exciting is that modern research, neuroscience, and neuroimaging are corroborating these benefits. Studies have shown that practices like meditation and deep breathing can bring about changes in the brain’s structure, creating new neural pathways. It is, however, important to note that self-compassion needs to be a life-long process as the benefits are cumulative.
Self-compassion is important for society at large as well. If more people were self-compassionate, there would be fewer conflicts, greater social support, and a collective resilience to surmount obstacles.