Fierce Self-compassion in Action

by Merita Petäjä, psychologist, Project Manager of Oasis of Radical Wellbeing

We tend to think that when we are demanding towards ourselves, we perform better, and that self-compassion leads us to lower performance, laziness and too much comfort. Results from the AllWell study-wellbeing questionnaire show clearly that a high burn-out rate is correlated with high self-criticism.

Why is self-compassion especially important in places like universities? Aalto University is full of talented people, bold and brave thinkers, innovators, who also demand a lot of themselves. And as we demand a lot of ourselves, we also tend to demand a lot of others, too. We tend to think that when we are demanding towards ourselves, we perform better, and that self-compassion leads us to lower performance, laziness and too much comfort. Results from the AllWell study-wellbeing questionnaire show clearly that a high burn-out rate is correlated with high self-criticism. Self-compassion is correlated with self-efficacy, the feeling that “yes, I can do it! I can do it now, and I can do it in the future!”

Self-compassion means that we try to figure out what is good for us in the long run. Self-care means that we take actions to promote the safety and wellbeing of ourselves. Self-compassion can be nurturing, but it can also be protecting and providing. So, if I squeeze everything out of myself because of tight deadlines and schedules, there will be a need for time to recover. The longer the pressure lasts, the longer a time for recovery is needed. When we fail, self-compassion helps us to bear the negative feelings of shame and disappointment, to recover and to learn from failures, so that we can do better next time.

What does self-compassion mean in practice? Imagine a situation, where a really good friend is facing hard times. What do you say to this friend? Something like this:

“What a fool you are, this is totally your own fault! You should have tried harder / worked better”

Or would you rather say:

“Oh, I am sorry, that´s terrible. I am here for you.”

The first sentence sometimes comes to your mind when we think of mistakes we have done. We might say it to ourselves, but not to a friend.

In my own personal development, I made a giant leap when I first learned about self-compassion. Nowadays I think that self-compassion helped me to move into a learning mode instead of staying in a performance mode. In performance mode, I used to be harsh and critical towards myself believing, that this would help me perform better. When I had a chance to attend the self-compassion course led by Chris Germer, I slowly started to change my thinking towards openness and softness towards my own failures. I learned to deal with the feelings of disappointment, shame, the need to blame others as the guilty ones for my failures or looking for others to blame. It takes a bit of time from me, sometimes five minutes, but sometimes a few days of work: walking, playing piano, writing my diary.

During this time of reflection, I have the possibility to see what happens. For example, I recently got into an argument with a good colleague of mine. I had to take a time-out and ask, “What is happening in my body, in my feelings, in my thoughts? Why am I so angry? So disappointed? So sad? What kinds of assumptions do I have of this person?” Practicing mindfulness helped me to accept the feelings and experiences as they are. That was already helpful. With the help of tender self-compassion, it was possible to bounce back, to recover. But the work did not end there. With the help of fierce self-compassion, it was possible to do something about it. The next important question was, what would I need in this situation right now? What would be helpful? Trying to forget it might be an option but there is too big risk that my anger would come out some way or another in the future. After reflecting, I asked him for discussion time to solve the issue. We scheduled some time together and agreed to use safer space rules and listen to each other. I admit, I was scared before the meeting. And I had to work hard to have a tough backbone but a soft front, for really listening to the other person, but not giving up on the issues really important for me. In thirty minutes, we managed to do it! It worked out – we just had seen our work issues from totally different angles. Now the creative energy is flowing again and the amount of trust between us has risen to a new level.

Fierce self-compassion is action energy. It helps us alleviate suffering – that of our own or of someone else. Fierce self-compassion means protecting, saying aloud what we have experienced, setting a meeting for dialogue to solve the problem, staying strong and listening to others, setting boundaries, and fighting injustice if needed. And if we are stuck in bad situations that seem to suck out our joy or energy, fierce self-compassion helps us trying out something different in the situation.

Fierce self-compassion means learning to harness our anger and transform it into qualities like courage and strength, and to confront others, if needed. Instead of being emotionally reactive, it means finding space to work the anger out, tempering it and transforming it to actions.

To do it, we need the skill of clear thinking. To look back at the facts of this specific situation. What really happened, what are the objective truths, who said what, etc. Working our way through our feelings means accepting our own anger – we have the right to feel its power. There are also other, paralleling feelings with it, like disappointment and sorrow. Through acceptance, the power of the feeling diminishes, and we can start to find inner peace. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes we need someone else to support us. After finding inner equanimity, we are able to encounter others, to change things, when needed.

Fierce self-compassion does not mean demonizing others – instead, it means understanding that even though we see things differently, common humanity unites us. Deep down there are more similarities between us than differences. In moments of difficulties, we are not empowering hostility but kindness. When we are able to work through our own anger and keep emotional equanimity, it is possible to stay calm with the attitude “I can see this, can you?”.

If there are matters to be corrected, fierce self-compassion means taking compassionate action.

May I be strong in the face of hate

May I seek justice with mercy and equity

May I be source of compassion, kindness and hope.

Eva Sivan

Oasis of Radical Wellbeing | Aalto University

On this page you will find information about Wellbeing issues at Aalto and interesting references to improve your own skills in wellbeing! Professor emeritus Esa Saarinen talks about teaching (and a lot more) OASIS archives: Vice President Petri Suomala zoomed with Dr. Kamilah Majied and discussed equity, inclusivity and diversity. Watch the video!

Visit (radicalwellbeing.aalto.fi)
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