top of page

Self-Compassion: The Key to Genuine Thriving

By Fleet Maull, Ph.D.

In the realm of personal growth and resilience, I’m fascinated by the relationship between two pivotal concepts: thriving and self-compassion. Their intricate dance weaves a tapestry of interdependence that guides our journey from mere survival to genuine flourishing.

Life is Tough As human beings, our existence is often marked by a myriad of challenges, particularly as we attempt to navigate the complexity and uncertainty that seem so prevalent in our world today. The passage of time bestows upon us its own set of trials, demanding constant management and adaptation. In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, the chaos, stress, and speed that pervade most of our interactions might feel discouraging, and all the various forms of suffering and adversity can eventually create a rather bleak perspective. 

From Surviving to Thriving However, despite the obstacles that litter our path, it's essential to recognize that our very essence, as a human being, is primed for flourishing. This realization may initially appear paradoxical, given the myriad impediments that obstruct our trajectory. From the layers of conditioning imprinted upon us during childhood to the tumultuous landscapes of our personal and professional spheres, the journey toward thriving can seem like an arduous uphill climb.

It's crucial not to succumb to the illusion that we are fated to merely endure existence. Dwelling solely in survival mode creates a detrimental cycle, ensnaring us in a web of fear and apprehension. While survival instincts are necessarily ingrained within our neurobiology, allowing them to overshadow our capacity for growth and fulfillment is both counterproductive and unnecessary.  So, how do we pivot from a mindset fixated on survival and coping to one rooted in flourishing? How do we foster an internal landscape conducive to thriving, even amid life's most formidable challenges? The answer lies in cultivating self-compassion—the cornerstone of our journey towards holistic well-being.

Embracing Our Humanity Of course, there exists a plethora of tools, practices, and teachings at our disposal. From psychological approaches to spiritual practices, from mindset techniques to therapeutic modalities, the options abound. Yet, to truly harness these resources in a way that propels us towards thriving, rather than settling for mere coping mechanisms, we must embrace our present reality and all its complexities and dare to befriend ourselves, as we are, in this moment. With self-compassion and self-acceptance as our guiding lights, we greet our experiences—confusion, suffering, limitations, and all—with an open heart and a curious mind.

This embrace is not merely an act of resignation but an invitation to embark on a transformative adventure, a journey toward self-discovery and growth.  Instead of shying away from our experiences, we approach them with a sense of aliveness and curiosity. We become our own allies, stepping away from avoidance and coping strategies to confront reality head-on. In doing so, we unearth new layers of self-awareness and resilience, moving beyond survival instincts to embrace the fullness of our humanity.

This journey, fraught with challenges and uncertainties, is nothing short of an exhilarating adventure—the great odyssey of being human. While our innate neurophysiological predisposition towards survival may initially dominate our consciousness, it is through deliberate self-examination and compassionate engagement with our experiences that we pave the way for true flourishing. It might seem like we're navigating life with a certain level of success and adaptability, yet beneath the surface, the undercurrent of survival remains pervasive—a deeply ingrained paradigm that governs our thoughts and actions. So, how do we truly break free from this paradigm?

Shifting Paradigm I don't believe it's possible to effect a superficial shift. It requires a multi-dimensional approach, a synthesis of both top-down and bottom-up strategies. At the outset, there's the cognitive shift—a shift in mindset that begins with awareness. It's about recognizing the possibility of transitioning from a mindset of mere survival and coping to one characterized by thriving and flourishing. Simply becoming aware of this potential can be a pivotal moment—a spark of interest or curiosity that ignites a desire for change.

However, the real transformation occurs at a deeper, more visceral level—the bottom-up approach. It's in this context that the seeds of change are sown and nurtured, and where self-compassion plays a crucial role. Without it, our survival instincts will persistently co-opt our efforts, pulling us back into the familiar territory of the survival paradigm.

Cultivating Self-Compassion How do we cultivate this ground of self-compassion? How do we ensure that our journey begins with a genuine foundation of self-compassion?  Well, it starts with the courageous willingness to confront and engage with our lack of self-compassion.  To embark on this transformative journey, We must first delve into the depths of our psyche, exploring the intricate mechanisms of our survival-driven psychology and neurophysiology, approaching this inquiry with genuine curiosity, and acknowledging the pervasive influence of the survival paradigm in our lives. Instead of assuming that we are free from its grip, we must remain vigilant, continuously peeling back the layers to reveal its subtle manifestations.

In this process, it's essential to recognize the role of self-criticism, self-judgment, and even self-loathing within the framework of survival dynamics. Rather than vilifying these aspects of ourselves, we must acknowledge their intelligence—a misguided adaptation intended to safeguard our survival. However, as we delve deeper, we come to realize that these mechanisms have veered off course, overshadowing our capacity for aliveness and presence.

Thus, the journey towards self-compassion begins with a profound acceptance of our human complexity. It's about embracing the intelligence inherent in our survival-focused self, even as we acknowledge its limitations. Rather than seeking to eradicate or transcend it, we cultivate a sense of respect and appreciation for its role in our journey thus far.

Befriending the Totality of Our Being This entails developing a genuine warmth towards our neurotic tendencies and embracing them with humor and humility. It's about recognizing that self-improvement and personal growth are not about fixing what's broken or striving to become something we're not—it's about honoring our inherent worthiness and embracing the continual process of growth and evolution.

Ultimately, fostering self-compassion requires us to embrace ourselves in all our complexity and imperfection. It's a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

And a wonderful vehicle for embarking on this journey is the practice of mindfulness or some kind of self-awareness practice, providing us with a methodology for cultivating presence—the ability to be fully engaged in our moment-to-moment experience.

Whether through moving meditations or seated practices, these methods offer a path to simply be with our experiences as they unfold, without the impulse to alter or judge them. Instead of striving to change or escape from our experiences, we gradually develop a willingness to meet them with curiosity and acceptance.

Developing Respect and Appreciation Through this process, we begin to shift our relationship with our experiences, moving away from judgment and preference towards a deep respect for their inherent intelligence—even if that intelligence has veered off course in certain ways. By approaching our experiences with a spirit of befriending, we gradually redirect our attention, fostering a more compassionate and open-hearted stance towards ourselves. Central to this journey is the recognition that we need not reject any aspect of ourselves. 

My first spiritual teacher used the expression: "the manure of Bodhi." Bodhi is a Sanskrit word that means awake or awakened. So we talk about “Bodhi mind” and Bodhicitta (which means awakened heart). The idea is that everything in our experience ( including our most challenging experiences) is the manure, the fertilizer for our awakening. 

Yet, we are deeply conditioned to judge and identify with our judgments, constructing our identities around them. Thus, we must patiently cultivate the capacity to sit with our experiences as they arise, observing the arising of the judging mind without getting entangled in its web. This process begins at the most fundamental level of consciousness, where we inquire into the mechanics of our conditioning with genuine curiosity and appreciation.

Conclusion As we gradually befriend and embrace our experiences, rather than resisting or struggling against them, we create a space for transformation to unfold. Through meditation and self-awareness practices, we cultivate a non-judgmental space where our experiences can arise and dissolve naturally. Over time, this leads to a gradual untangling of our conditioning, both psychological and neuro-physiological, allowing us to experience greater clarity and lightness.

And that very same intelligence—that created some of the early adaptations that became maladaptive at some point— will shine through and show us the way forward into a life of thriving and genuine flourishing. 

890 views1 comment

1 Comment

I strongly agree with this assessment. Self-compassion, I believe, is key for our overall wellbeing. I think it teaches us how to be with challenges and struggles. That's not something that is taught in society. I have seen my nephew grow from this empathetic gentle soul to this being that feels ashamed for feeling pain. Same for my nieces. I think people have this idea that life is hard so you have to develop thick skin so no one can see you hurting. So you can take licks without a whimper. But I think you just cause kids to grow into being unable to process difficult emotions. Or bypass them all together. If it's not appropriate to let your p…

bottom of page