In a slim volume entitled The Art of Loving, psychologist Erich Fromm echoed the Buddha when he noted that the root of loving others was the capacity to love and be compassionate to the self. Fromm felt that Americans, in particular, lost sight of the essential ground of self-love because they became so preoccupied with producing or the feeling of unnecessary guilt for not being selfless, as if loving the self and loving others was a zero-sum game. Instead, he advised that the highest forms of love—in romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships—blossomed out of healthy self-compassion. His work remains a strangely subversive and surprising though simple truism: to love others fully. We must reconcile and work on a deep love and compassion for ourselves.
Some people worry that self-compassion might excuse them from being accountable and responsible for themselves and their relationships. Ironically, self-compassion is a lot like empathy for others. When we empathize with others, we try to understand their perspective and what it's like to walk in their shoes and feel what they feel. Just because we empathize with them does not mean we have to endorse their behavior. We can easily empathize with someone and disagree with how they represented their thoughts and feelings or choices, but at root, we can understand the “why” of it all. Instead of just endorsing or wholeheartedly approving of them, we open a space to make them feel safer and more comfortable to become more curious and emotionally intelligent about who they are and who they can become. We allow them the space for deeper creative engagement.
In other words, self-compassion is the royal road—to borrow from Freud—to becoming emotionally intelligent. It gives us the space to be curious, flexible, and discriminating about what we are experiencing and shows us how to creatively make something new out of our feelings, if and only if we allow ourselves to first dwell in them.
There is an important distinction between dwelling in versus dwelling on feelings. Dwelling in allows us to become emotionally connected so we can become creative. However, dwelling on or ruminating about our feelings or a situation maintains a fear-based avoidance or a perfectionist desire to be in total control. Self-compassion allows us to surrender in the best way; like the old spiritual, it will enable us to be temporarily lost so we can be found again.
Self-compassion is the emotional complement to intellectual curiosity. It allows us to play with our thoughts and feelings to notice their forms and make new forms out of them. And it does so because it is connected to a fundamental place of loving ourselves, which is the greatest muse we have. We are so often seduced into believing that the Critic is the one who truly motivates us, but this side of ourselves comes from a place of fear, insecurity, and doubt. The worried side of us only wants us to perform but is not interested in discovering and temporarily not knowing. Self-compassion allows us to temporarily not know until we begin to fully open into the multifaceted narrative we call our lives.