‘Compassion… is best understood as a verb, it’s something that we do’

As heard on Drivetime

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In terms of our pursuit of happiness and fulfilment, could we be looking for all the right things in all the wrong places?

If there was a fail-safe method to manifest inner peace, outer prosperity and every good thing in between, then there would be no need for a multi-billion dollar self-help industry that promises us everything under the sun and, as those whose bookshelves are filled with many such aspirational titles may attest, fails to deliver on that promise far too frequently.  Could our quest for ultimate self-actualisation be doing us more harm than good and if so, what’s the alternative?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that positivity, self-esteem and unconditional self-acceptance are ‘good things’… or are they…?  Dr Paul Dalton, Principal Clinical Psychologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital and Associate Professor at UCD, spoke to Sarah McInerney on Drivetime about why it’s sometimes important to think twice before ‘living your best life’ or committing to the ‘new you’.

No one is arguing that self-esteem isn’t a positive attribute, but even something as seemingly beneficial as this can have a dark side.

“Last week we looked at the downside of self-esteem, like the damage that self-esteem could potentially do to people when we overrate it, that idea of kind of falling into the worthy ‘when’…  When I have x, y and z, I’ll be ok, I’ll be worthy then, so as we said there are downsides to it and narcissism being one of them as well that we talked about.”

If self-esteem isn’t the one-size-fits-all cure for the chaos of contemporary living and the key to ultimate success, then what is?  What about the concept of unconditional acceptance, as has been put forth by many renowned psychologists and thought-leaders?

“I think unconditional acceptance is a huge ask.  In fact, I think acceptance is a huge ask, so we’ve got to maybe manage that a little bit…  Acceptance is for those very advanced human beings, I’m not one of them, I haven’t met a lot of them.”

Rather than place the burden of achieving unconditional acceptance on ourselves on top of everything else we have going on in our lives, Paul advises us to consider instead the concept of allowing.  Maybe we can’t fully accept our teenager’s behaviour, but if we experiment with the idea of allowing, even in small doses, we may find a more peaceful path to conflict resolution and a more tranquil way of living.

Something that comes up time and time again in Paul’s research on these topics is the idea of self-compassion.  If you can master this, Paul reckons you might just be onto a winner.  He says it “seems to hold huge potential (and) may offer some of the benefits of self-esteem without the downsides.”  Rather than compassion being solely about ending the suffering of others, Paul says that when taking a holistic view, there are three main components.

“Number 1 with compassion is we turn up to what’s happening…  We see, oh there’s a problem, there’s a difficulty, there’s something that I don’t want going on here… and number 2, with that, we acknowledge or we bring about feelings of kindness towards that situation, and number 3, probably most importantly is that we take action.  Compassion… is best understood as a verb, it’s something that we do.  It’s not just an emotion or a feeling for someone and when we think about self-compassion, it’s that turning up to difficulty, feeling kindness, unconditional judgement or a lack of judgement and taking action so it’s that, turned in on ourselves.”

Paul advises developing compassionate feelings towards ourselves as a crucial bridge between how we currently feel and experience life and where we’d like to be in an ideal world.  He feels that any step in from one side of that bridge to the other, no matter how small, is truly a step in the right direction.

“We have a relationship with ourselves… that very often for a lot of us tends to be very critical, tends to be very harsh, it tends to be a relationship that kind of says, you know Paul, you’re not really good enough…  One of the most challenging pieces or parts of what we can do for ourselves as human beings is to develop a kindness to ourselves.”

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© The Listener 2018

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