Updated: Oct 3, 2022
We are here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach, and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation mindfulness for the past two decades, training and certifying others to teach mindfulness. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled “Tame Soothe Dwell: The 55 Teachings of TSD mindfulness. In today's podcast episode, we discuss compassion. We define compassion and how it differs from empathy, sympathy, kindness, and other emotions. We also talk about the research from Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in self-compassion. I’m Jacob DeRossett. I'm joined here by Sarah Vallely Sarah, how are you today?
I'm great, Jacob. I'd like to begin by defining “compassion”. Sometimes we think about the ability to understand and share feelings. But that's the definition of empathy, and empathy and compassion are different. Research shows that another part of our brain is activated when we are compassionate compared to empathetic. Empathy has a lot to do with feeling the pain of someone else. We also might think we are compassionate when we feel sorry, or pity for someone else. But that is the definition of sympathy. We might think of being friendly, generous, or considerate. But that's the definition of kindness.
A typical definition of compassion is recognizing the suffering in others and trying to relieve their suffering. But my definition is a little bit different. And the reason is, is because that's a fine line, relieving the suffering of someone else. Of course, that's a nice thought and sometimes very appropriate. But sometimes, going in and relieving somebody's suffering is not healthy for us and possibly not for the other person. For example, I've historically been that type of mother who can't see her kids fail. And I was jumping in and making sure things are done in a certain way. And I've learned over the years that that wasn't the best approach.And there are other circumstances where swooping in and relieving someone of their suffering isn't necessarily appropriate. For example, if someone in your family has addiction issues, we can support them without saving their situation.
My definition of compassion has to do with the idea of devaluing. Devaluing is when we think that someone or ourselves is lesser of a person because of a circumstance. Devaluing means we, in a way, reduce someone's worth. Reducing our worth or devaluing is what happens right before we feel the emotion of shame.
My definition of compassion is recognizing someone suffering and desiring them (or ourselves) not to think they are lesser of a person because of the circumstance. I think about the mental components of compassion. There are the heart components of compassion, which would be that feeling of love. Empathy was sympathy, forgiveness, gratitude, trust, and healing. Those are all these profound, heartfelt emotions we experience in conjunction with feeling compassionate But the mental component of compassion is crucial--changing our thinking. The mindfulness part isn't the changing of the thoughts. The mindfulness part is being aware of the moments when we could step in, change our thinking, and think more compassionately.
Another reason the mental component is critical is that our mental process sabotages our ability to be compassionate. Whether that's towards another person or ourselves. If our mind is quiet and our consciousnesses is focused in our hearts, we are probably not moving into a place of being not compassionate. It's when we're in our heads, and we're in these thinking cycles--that's when we lose touch with these moments of compassion.
If the definition of compassion is recognizing someone's suffering and not wanting them to think that they are any lesser of a person, how can we notice these moments? How can we notice these moments with other people? How can we notice these moments with ourselves? A typical circumstance in which we might devalue ourselves is when we feel a difficult emotion, such as hurt or feeling abandonment, loss, or rejection. That would be a good indicator that it's possible you might be devaluing yourself. You might be thinking you're lesser of a person because of these challenging emotions. You might think, “I'm not handling this the way I should,” or ”I’m emotionally weak.”
These are the times when we need to practice self-compassion. Another scenario would be if you're in a difficult mental state, such as depressed or feeling pressure. If you're in a difficult circumstance, such as losing your job or going through a divorce, dealing with a medical issue or an injury, we might start devaluing ourselves. We might say to ourselves, “I should have been more responsible,” “I feel so incapable because of my circumstances.” And that would be a perfect time to come in with some self-compassion. Or if you feel like you're being targeted. That would be another typical example.
I had an experience recently of doing the thing when you're driving in the car after just having left a social interaction and thinking like, “Oh, wow, I'm underachieving right now. I need to get home and do all these things.” And I am upset with myself for allowing things to get to a place where they are now. I’m making an entire list of all the things that I was doing wrong and thinking about how delusional I've been lately and distracted. I’m judging my social interactions with others--feeling like I was distracted, and not being with the person.
Once you become mindful in that moment, find something you can validate yourself about. For example, you mentioned distraction, that would be a perfect thing to validate yourself about. You might say to yourself, “It's understandable that I've been distracted. It's been a hectic day. I've had a lot going on.” Using self-compassion practice decreases anxiety, depression, and burnout. shows compassion meditation helps with burnout, which I found interesting. Kristin Neff is a Ph.D., is a researcher, and she's the Pioneer of researching self-compassion. I’m greatly influenced by her work. I just love what she's doing.
And she's written a great book called “Self-Compassion”. The core of what she teaches is based on three pillars. The first is self-kindness. Treat yourself with care and understanding. Understanding is that validation piece that I was just mentioning, and care would be, following up with a statement that shows that you care for yourself. An example might be, “I'll get through this, it's going to be okay,” or “I understand that I make mistakes.” The next pillar that she talks about is a sense of common humanity, recognizing that imperfection is a shared aspect of the human experience. We are human beings, having a human experience, and our worth lies in the fact that we are human. That's where our worth comes from. Our worth doesn't come from the fact that we got it all right, we're not devalued because we didn't get it all right. We are worthy because we are human beings who are having a human experience. And we are moving through emotions of joy, gratitude, and pain and loss. That's why we are so worthy.
The third pillar is mindfulness. She specifically talks about mindfulness in leaning into our pain, as opposed to avoiding or exaggerating our pain and moving into acceptance. She doesn't use the word healing a lot, but I use the word healing. This is the healing part. When we can accept those tricky emotions of abandonment, loss, rejection, we lean into them and give ourselves compassion. This is how we can heal them. You can move through them and heal and eventually, on the other end, experience joy.
Kristen Neff suggests doing some reflection exercises. I do a lot of reflection exercises with my clients. We take a look at what's coming up in their life that's pulling them into these states when they are putting themself down. We do some investigation so we can practice being mindful of when those moments come about. Kristin Neff teaches compassion meditation, which are visualizations that include self-kindness and include the sense of common humanity, and she also tells us to practice loving kindness. Loving-kindness meditation is a way to incorporate compassion and self-compassion all in the same meditation. Loving-kindness meditation is when we say I wish for myself to have peace. I wish for myself to have joy. I wish myself to be healthy, and then wishing for someone else to have those things and then wishing for all beings to have those things.
I always start with people I care a lot about, like my wife or cats. I'll pick one person, and t I imagine they are in a recliner made of light--warm glowing light, gold, pure light. I imagine they're blissfully happy, and I just say things like, “May you be happy, May you feel loved. May you be healthy.” And then I start moving out to other people in my life. And I've never really gotten to myself. I've heard a few teachers say that you're the most challenging person to give loving-kindness to. If you had to pick one meditation to do, I would say that would be the one! Begin and pick somebody easy for you to feel good feelings towards, and then work your way out to somebody neutral. And then you could even work your way out to somebody that you don't particularly like, and then maybe you could do yourself, yourself is the hardest one, in my experience.
You're a personal trainer and working with clients. Do you see devaluing come up as far as body image and strengthening? Do they ever get into situations where self-compassion would be helpful?
Only every day, people have highs and lows. People, in general, are taught to wish their body was a lot different than it is and not to like certain aspects of it. And something I always tell people is if your doctor says you're healthy, you get around well, and you can do all of your regular daily tasks easily, then it's cosmetic. Your view of yourself as a cosmetic view comes from a view of society or social pressure to look a certain way.
The science says if your body fat is not impairing your balance and you are at all of your health markers then having extra body fat is a good thing. If you get in a car accident, it's padding. If you fall while you're hiking, it's padding. You might want to look different in a bikini, who doesn't! I'm a trainer--if I'm brushing my teeth in the morning and feel like I look bloated, I feel like my career is falling apart. It's real. But I realized, I don't have 10% body fat but 15% is okay. I like bread. And I like beer, and I try to keep it in check. This is an ongoing thing for everybody. Do your strength training, go to your doctor, get your walks in, spend time outside, do your meditation to keep your stress low, and you're probably going to live a good life.
That's excellent advice. And I don't know what it is about our culture that makes it feels weird, uncomfortable to give ourselves compassion What is it about our upbringing? The first thing that's coming to my mind is, to be tough, just tough it out. You're strong. You're tough, get through this. And I think when we move into a space where we're giving ourselves compassion, we have to be vulnerable enough to accept and lean into the fact that, we are having a hard time and we are feeling vulnerable.
Lately, I've been reading a book, a strength training book. There's this brilliant line in it about how being an athlete is walking a line between overtraining and laziness and that you should try to find that line, meaning you should probably make your training easier. A lot of life factors are going to be affected by your getting overtrained--getting your hormones off balance. You need to be a disciplinary to get to the gym. And as soon as you get to the gym, turn into nurture. Get there every day, really make it happen. And then be nurturing when you get there.
The Buddha talked about the middle path. In our culture, we don't know how to relax when we're supposed to rest. And we don't know how to get fired up when we need to get fired up to go to the gym and be diligent in getting up and doing our meditation. We all struggle with this notion of when to be diligent, when to be disciplined and when to relax and allow it The concept I've been thinking about a lot lately is the middle path. For example, if you are not very pleasant to be around to your temper, acknowledging that and changing it is essential. But at the same time, telling yourself that you're a terrible person because you get angry doesn't work either. There's the middle road there.
I love that about pushing yourself to get to the gym. But once you get to the gym, be nurturing. What might be an example of how we can nurture ourselves.
Picking exercise variations that are pretty mild. As far as strength training goes, the weight on the bar should be significant enough that you're getting stronger, your numbers are going up. You're consistently lifting heavier weight but if you notice your back feels a bit tweaked today. Not saying, “Well, I should deadlift every day. So I will deadlift today.” Instead say, “Wow, My back feels a bit tweaked. That's odd. Okay, well, I guess I should explore why my back feels this way and what I can do to make my body feel a little better.”
Another thing that Kristin Neff talks about, which I think is helpful are six different forms of self-compassion. What you were saying about taking a moment to be curious about your needs at the gym would fall under the category of “providing”. For example, saying to yourself, “I am important. I have needs.” There are also self-compassion actions we can do. For example, setting boundaries in your scheduled to create time to journal. Provide yourself that time.
I had talked about the form of self-compassion, validation. Saying, “What I am going through is difficult, and understandably, I’m struggling.” Or another example might be, “I'm under a lot of pressure. I can see why my anxiety is high.” Another form that Kristin Neff talks about is comfort. “I'll get through this. I'm going to be okay,” would be a great example of giving yourself comfort. She also talks about soothing. I haven't quite understood the difference between the comfort and soothing categories. I take the soothing category to be more of an action you do for yourself. And then comfort might be something you might say to yourself. A soothing action might be to take a walk to help soothe your nervous system, allowing yourself to cry and move through and move into healing in that way.
And another form of self-compassion that she talks about is to protect yourself. And that might be thinking, “It's not alright for me to be treated this way.” Protect yourself from situations that are emotionally unsafe, physically unsafe Removing yourself from a situation would be a self-compassionate action that you would do to protect yourself. And the last category of self-compassion, she talks about his motivation. Saying something to yourself or taking an action that motivates you.
An example might be, “I will change the way I look at myself because I care about myself,” or “A vacation would be so good for me. I know I can make that work.”
We had talked about how giving self-compassion to ourselves can feel uncomfortable. I will share these self-compassion statements and action examples on the blog. And my recommendation is to do them even if it feels weird, and even if it feels uncomfortable. Eventually, it will start to feel very meaningful. It will begin to feel like it is supporting. It can be very healing, and self-compassion statements and actions can make your situations easier to move through. That's the bottom line.
I did not see any value in self-compassion practices at all. When I first started, it took me a couple of years before even doing it. I just really felt like it was unnecessary. Now, I believe it’s the most important practice that you could do. I would tell myself I don't need to do self-compassion. If you're somebody who doesn’t think you need it, that means that you don't know what self-compassion means.I used to force myself to sit through compassion meditation because I knew I probably needed to. Now it's the first thing I do in the morning. And I think it's the most important thing.
Yeah, I agree with you. We're often the hardest on ourselves. And that's why mindfulness is so important because we use mindfulness, that awareness of our thinking, to understand that we are putting ourselves down. We can cultivate this awareness during sitting practice. This allows you to get a better read on what you are thinking. The practice can bleed into the rest of the day--noticing those thoughts. Noticing those thoughts cycles is key because when we notice it, we take a pause, and then we say a self-compassion statement to ourselves.