You can’t have helped but seen the utter madness ensuing around the world recently. The Syrian civil war, subsequent refugee crisis, mass shootings, terror attacks, the great divide not only between the UK and Europe, but within UK borders, knife crime and increased racism. Go home 2016, you’re drunk! All of this, however, probably affects you more than you think.
The one thing I haven’t been able to shake recently is how our health connects to social issues. Why? Because it all stems from the heart, it’s all about the heart. The heart is where health and wellness starts and ends, and it is where events like the former mentioned start and end. Maybe you think this is a big leap; maybe you’re offended by this… good! If we’re not offended by what is happening in the world around us and moved to a point of compassion then nothing will change. A heart that is full of pain needs healing, but this can only happen in the time said heart needs. A heart full of pain can become hard and will either take on compassion or arrogance, and this, I believe, is what is found not only in the health and wellness industry but also in worldwide events.
I bet, and I include myself in this, that most people out there on the path to health and wellness have had a pain-filled and hardened heart. Compassion can come from this, towards ourselves and others, and this is where the “healthier”, positive, balanced side of health and wellness comes in. We look for ways to be compassionate towards ourselves in the way that we treat our bodies physically, but also in the way that we think about ourselves and the way that we take rest and enjoy life. However, the flip-side of self-compassion coming from a hardened heart is not just the more known idea of an inflated ego (arrognace) but also self-esteem. Yes, self-esteem is generally used to mean ‘good’ confidence, whereas ego, arrogance. So how is self-esteem set on a par with an inflated ego and a negative flip-side to self-compassion?
Dr Kristen Neff, Professor Human Development be Culture, Eductional Psychology Department, Unjversity of Texas at Austin, has been studying self-compassion for over a decade and is a pioneer in the movement against self-esteem. Neff states that although self-compassion and self-esteem have positive overlaps and similarities, the main differences affect how we treat ourselves. Self-esteem, is all about judging ourselves at how good we’ve been at something, it is present when we succeed at something, yet it becomes all about bettering ourselves, being special, above average. It focuses on the self instead of on our shared common humanity. It is confidence and self high regard through undermining others and comparing our achievements. Neff would say, this is not only unsustainable but it can also lead to narcissism and bouts of depression during hard times. The self-esteem movement has created narcissists, and apathetic people, who can’t look at or sit in their pain and acknowledge it. They can’t be nice to themselves like they would a friend. They almost thrive off failure and need it to be propelled on.
Self-compassion, however, is not about judging or evaluating ourselves and our performance but instead accepting ourselves where we are at. Acknowledging failures and successes and creating and acknowledging that shared human connection as we let ourselves look at and sit in our pain and say, “OK, that hurts.” We need not to slip into fantasies of a better life, which bring self-pity, but to be present to our feelings and see how they connect with our thoughts and behaviours. As said, a hardened heart will go one of two ways. If it follows the route of healing through self-compassion then compassion can be created for our neighbours locally and globally. However, if self-esteem is used as healing then we won’t understand other people’s pain and suffering. We will continually look to ourselves to look, feel and be better, not just compared to ourselves but to those around us. Self-compassion, Neff states, “is the healthier side of feeling good about ourselves”, and is this not what the health and wellness industry is all about?
Dr Jennifer Crocker states, “it’s not whether we have self-esteem or not which is the problem, but it’s how we get it”. That’s the real issue. This is where our health and wellness meets social issues. More and more I am starting to see how our wellness pursuits impact more than just ourselves, but friends, family, and our local and global communities. If we’d only let our hearts position wellness in its rightful place. This is a place of self-compassion, where we don’t become obsessed with ourselves and our self-care simply to gain more self-esteem (feelings of value and worth created from a sense of success). Instead we look after ourselves because we love who we are and respect and honour who we are. We then gain more love, respect and honour for the people around us, in a real way where we genuinely want to reach out and help people. My wellness isn’t solely about looking good (this is obviously a very nice bonus and I’d be lying if I didn’t say otherwise), or eating some incredible meal. It’s not about making sure I always get my “me-time” exactly the way I want it, or trying the next big fad, or meditating, or praying more, but it’s about me becoming more compassionate towards myself and towards others.
This has a huge impact on how we view the world around us and treat the people around us. Whilst recent events don’t necessarily affect our wellness directly, they do demonstrate on a larger scale what can happen when we let negative evaluation and judgment of ourselves out of our hearts, instead of positive acceptance of ourselves. The events which happen in our own lives, and how we respond to them can seem so small and insignificant but these are smaller examples of what can happen on a larger scale. For example, Neff uses the analogy of bullying and how research has shown this to be a quest for high self-esteem. Later how prejudice within religious or ethnic groups can be a way to make social comparison and boost self-esteem.
An increased awareness, within our wellness pursuits, of self-compassion would not only serve us to stop comparing our lives on social media in this vicious cycle of envy, failure, guilt, repeat, but rather help us have compassion towards ourselves and those around. True self-compassion can lead to being bothered enough by all the events this past year, that we’d make differences in our lives. We’d be bothered by the fact that clothing is so cheap because the people who make them for us are essentially slaves. We’d be bothered that people get trafficked everyday and die in lorries or are forced to sell themselves to pay their trafficker. We’d be bothered that our neighbour needs help to get groceries, or to get to the doctors. We’d be bothered by the gang violence right on our doorstep and the rise in gun crime.
I know there’s a lot, there always is, but as I say to my clients; start with small, manageable steps. Try something small today, and watch how your heart grows with more compassion for yourself, and others. That’s the wellness revolution we need.