Writers and Self Compassion

Several months ago I met a woman who challenged me to investigate the meaning of selfishness. Part of me was intrigued, part of me was irritated; we all know what being selfish means, don’t we? Most of us have met self absorbed, self-interested people whose chief concern is getting what they want when they want it. For some reason, however, the word and it’s significance continued to niggle at me. As well as looking the word up in the dictionary and reflecting on it’s meaning I did a little extra digging and chanced upon the idea of self compassion.Dino Reichmuth

Since last November I have found the tension between art and life is no longer an abstract issue but a very real concern. I’ve struggled to find a comfortable balance between the two, and my friends and family are casualties of the struggle. That bothers me more than I can say. It also feels extremely selfish. My exploration of self compassion is incomplete but I am interested in how it might help me establish a more convivial balance.

Kristen Neff defines self compassion as

being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self compassion also involves offering non judgemental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.

Exercising self compassion, claims Dr Neff, is knowing the difference between self-kindness and self judgement, between feeling isolated and excluded and acknowledging our shared humanity, and between being mindful of our difficulties and ruminating or worrying about them. This is how I suggest self compassion can help writers:

  1. We need to acknowledge that writing is hard. It is really hard. It is exhausting, painful, soul destroyingly hard. This is not a new idea. Talk to your nearest friendly writer (if they’re not writing) and even the most optimistic and successful will admit there a days when writing a reasonable sentence is a chore, let alone trying to write a novel. A self compassionate writer will acknowledge the difficulty and understand all writers share this experience. Being creative is a glorious, absorbing, exciting, rewarding chore. It feels like consorting with the gods one day and burying yourself in a pit of foul self-loathing the next. To pretend otherwise is to disconnect from the self and from making art. Writers need to be kind to themselves. Most writers are their own worst enemy; they are scions of self judgement and superstars of self criticism. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with our stories, novels, plays or poems we need to look for what is right with them (and work from there). We need to celebrate sentences, praise the standout line from poems, and honour the hours we spent honing that chapter.
  2. We need to understand we are not alone. I suspect that’s one reason writers blog. Bogging is connection, blogging is sharing, blogging is knowing someone on the other side of the planet is awake and has stumbled onto your blog and noticed that you, like they, are miserable. Clusters of writers are found at writer’s festivals chatting about their latest projects; at workshops learning how to write intelligently, sensitively and knowledgeably about indigenous people, people with a disability or transgendered folk; in suburban lounges reading their latest poem or a draft chapter of their novel. We are a supportive community. The image of the lone writer ripping sheets of paper from the typewriter in an orgy of writerly frustration must be laid to rest. The self compassionate writer seeks other writers, seeks the comfort of shared problems and shared celebrations when writing goes well.
  3. The self compassionate writer is a mindful writer. Novels are rarely written by a committee. Even writers who belong to a writing group write alone in the quiet of their study or a corner of a coffee shop where they are undisturbed, apart from the waiter discretely placing the fifth cup of coffee on the table.  Padurariu AlexandruSelf compassionate mindfulness acknowledges and releases the self critical judgements that loop through your brain, replacing them with your plot, the rhythm of your sentences and the delicacy of your images. How to do this? Meditation. Regular breaks. Going for long walks (with a pen and notebook). Reading, lots of reading. Eating properly. Getting a good night’s rest. Spending time with writers, artists, dancers, actors and other creative folk; going to an art gallery, a play, a movie. And did I say meditation?

I admit I don’t always practice self compassion. I believe I am the only writer to create tedious, ungrammatical, poorly punctuated sentences. As a perfectionist I have self criticism down to a fine art. Despite being a member of a writing group and living with an actor (who patiently waits and watches as I discover all of this), I feel isolated and adrift from fellow writers and intimidated when I meet other artists. I forget to be mindful, I forget to meditate, I forget to go for a walk. I sit in front of a keyboard for hours and forget to eat or drink.

It’s time I stopped thinking and reading about self compassion and started practising it regularly. It’s time I stopped confusing selfishness with self compassion. It’s time to acknowledge that writers, artists of any kind, constantly balance their need to make art with the rest of their lives and that’s okay.

If, says Neff, we lack self compassion we risk becoming self-esteem junkies hooked on the marvel of our amazing selves, our accomplishments, our gifts and our talents. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what teachers and parents have tried to do since the late 1960s? Raise children who believe in themselves, who are confident in their abilities? In her article, Neff demonstrates that good self esteem is no longer the positive achievement we thought it was. Self esteem fosters narcissism, self-absorption, self-centredness and a lack of concern for others. Being told we aren’t successful in our job, we failed a test, or did poorly on the playing field threatens our sense of self and triggers negative emotions. Neff further explains that self esteem is founded on comparisons; we feel good about ourselves because we compare ourselves to others. By reinforcing our self esteem we put others down.

If we feel compassion for ourselves, if we acknowledge our failures and weaknesses, if we understand that all of humanity suffers and grieves, we can turn to the person next to us and acknowledge their humanity. Self-compassion inspires compassion for all creatures, all beings. Self compassion encourages us to try to end our suffering and the suffering of others.

self-compassionThat’s something worth writing about.

What do you think? Is there a difference between selfishness and self compassion? Has the self-esteem train run off the rails? Do you practice self compassion?

REFERENCES

Neff, Kristin. ‘Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself.’ Self and identity 2.2 (2003), pp. 85-101.

16 thoughts on “Writers and Self Compassion

  1. Thanks for sharing such an important message through your writing. I am working on being more self compassionate since losing my Dad just over a year ago. I have just started a poetry blog here on WordPress in case you are interested in taking a look? Have a good day, Sam 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your support Sam, and for sharing your sad loss. I hope your blog and other forms of writing help you endure, and one day come to terms with, your grief. Good luck with your blog and thanks again for contacting me. Janet.

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  2. Awesome! Self-compassion! Yes I know this to be true with myself, that the more I practice inner kindness, care etc., then I have more for others. Thank you fellow writer/blogger!

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  3. I think for me self-compassion means showing the same generosity of spirit and grace to myself that I always try to show to others. The hardest place to do that in my life has been when I felt I needed forgiveness for letting myself down. Either because something I wrote really sucked or I did something unintentionally (or INtentionally) to hurt someone. That has sure been a stumbling block for me.

    “Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with our stories, novels, plays or poems we need to look for what is right with them (and work from there).” I think I need to write this on an index card and tape it to my desk…

    “…praise the standout line from poems…” This I love because I always try to do that when I leave comments. Sometimes I do get lazy, but usually there is a line in a poem somewhere that draws my attention and makes me feel connected.

    Great post, Janet!

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    1. That’s a lovely way to put it, Calen: ‘generosity of spirit and grace to myself.’ I understand what you say about your (our) ‘stumbling block’. A lot of us are much harder on ourselves than on others. I think that’s why I like the concept of self compassion. We extend to ourselves what we naturally bestow on others. One of the exercises on Kristin Neff’s website is to imagine, when we are giving ourselves a hard time, what a dear and loving friend would say to us. So, next time you think something you’ve written ‘sucks’ remember; I love your writing. There is so much that is right about how and what you write. I truly appreciate how you pick out ‘standout lines’ from other people’s work because it helps me to see the post in a new light. (I confess I am starting to copy this technique). It also makes better readers of us all. Take care my friend.

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  4. Once again another thought provoking and wonderful piece of writing Janet. Wish convince you on how talented you are. Thank you.
    Sadly I think there is a difference. Self compassion is only considered selfishness to us the female human species. It is used as judgement for those of us that are ‘not mothering properly’ or for those that are considered ‘not the mothering’ type. I have very rarely heard it as a term to be used on self absorbed males.

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    1. Hi Jacqui. I agree – and so does one other reader, as you can see. As I said in my response to that comment we women, mothers or not, and men, fathers or not, are the best teachers of self compassion. It’s an interesting concept and I feel I have much to learn about it. Thanks so much for your loving and thoughtful comments about my blogs. I assure you, I’m getting better at appreciating what I write, but I don’t know a writer who doesn’t agonise over their sentences; it seems to go with the territory.

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  5. Sadly yes there is a difference. Self compassion are for those that aren’t mothers. Selfishness is a term used for women who are not focusing on or showing compassion for their loved ones. I rarely find it is terminology used for men. Interesting piece once again Janet. Thank you x

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    1. Thanks for this comment. As you will see, one other person agrees with you. How, I wonder, can we teach our children self compassion if we don’t practice it ourselves? If more women, if more people, were self compassionate the world might be a better place, or at least an easier place to live and grow.

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