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