Self-Compassion: Are You There Yet?
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
How many times have you been overly strict and harsh on yourself, upon making a mistake or acting in a way that was not optimal, according to your expectations of yourself? Have you considered how your critical self-talk may be eliminating your chances of actually acting better and making self-progress? Employing an attitude of self-compassion may just be the solution to this problem.
Self-compassion is the ability to be compassionate towards oneself when faced with our own shortcomings and weaknesses. It means showing the same kind understanding and gentle support to ourselves, like we would show to anyone else suffering.
It is a concept highly relevant to mental health, well-being and self-esteem.
Psychologist Kristin Neff was the first one who defined the concept of self-compassion and conducted extensive research on it and its benefits, as well as identified practices that foster self-compassion.
Although many people find it relatively easy to be compassionate and empathetic to others when they fail, applying the same attitude of loving kindness to ourselves is often a much more difficult task. Take a moment to consider this attentively. When a friend that you truly care about messes up, think of your attitude... No matter how direct and honest you choose to be towards them, your priority is to not make things even worse for them. You handle them with care, you may acknowledge to them that indeed they acted poorly and made a mistake, but then... You soothingly will reassure them that "It's ok, we all mess up sometimes... What happened exactly, and why? Is it really the disaster that you contemplate it is? Let's see together, what can be done now? I am here for you"
It is really a paradox though! Why is it so hard to find the same care, kindness and love towards ourselves? Wisdom is easier to be expressed outwards, rather than inwards... Instead, we tend to be harsh, judgmental and critical to ourselves, punishing ourselves into a loop of self-blame that tends to push us further down into negativity.
Many confuse self-compassion with self-pity- feeling sorry about yourself. But in fact, self-compassion is quite the opposite; it means embracing yourself when you tend to be less-than-good-enough, without pitying yourself; it is all about understanding why you didn’t rise up to your own expectations and supporting yourself to actually stand on your feet again.
Self-compassion is closely related to practicing mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness (i.e. non-judgemental awareness) is a defining element of self-compassion. It is essential to be able to be mindful in order to be compassionate with yourself. Being mindful means being aware and observant to your thoughts and feelings without actively engaging with them and being reactive to them- something that perpetuates the negative state. Self-compassion essentially is kind and empathetic mindfulness- being tender to yourself while not further aggravating the negative state by being caught up in a negative inner dialogue.
Self-compassion entails recognizing that we are amidst a challenging state, for example we have failed in acting as the Best Version of ourselves. But instead of being judgmental and critical about our failure, we are sympathetic to ourselves, while at the same time providing a gentle encouragement that this too shall pass, and reassurance that we can and will do better in the future- but it is ok if we occasionally fail in the process.
But does this mean that being self-compassionate equals escaping personal responsibility for whatever we are guilty about in a specific moment? Not at all. By allowing ourselves to be more gentle and soft towards ourselves when we act in less-than-ideal ways, we actually become more accountable for our actions since we understand what urged us to act this way, thereby increasing our chances of attempting to make amends and be better from now on. Self-compassion therefore doesn’t mean making excuses for ourselves to justify “bad” behaviour, but it rather is an attitude of Acceptance and Allowing that sometimes we all do make mistakes, we fail. It is a gentle reminder of our humanity, since to be human means to be imperfect and occasionally vulnerable and weak. By recognizing our imperfection instead of punishing ourselves or getting swept by a series of “should” statements, we enhance our well-being.
To illustrate the significance of self-compassion, it is helpful to consider an interaction between a child and a parent. Imagine a child that comes home sad because they failed an important assessment at school. The critical parent might react in a punishing way, for instance “How could you fail in this? You studied hard and still failed; I am so disappointed in you. You’re grounded”. Instead, a loving, kind and compassionate parent could react in a much different way: “I understand why you are upset. You studied hard for this test and it didn’t go as you wished. But don’t let this get you down, it is not the end of the world- it was just one test. Is there a way that I could help you study?”
Which of the two approaches – the critical or the compassionate- is going to be more helpful and effective? The answer is obvious. The critical approach carries judgement within, which is inevitably going to cause negative emotions of guilt, shame, worthlessness and disappointment. The compassionate approach is supportive, encouraging, soothing and facilitates positive change in the future by enhancing the confidence of the receiver that they can indeed do better next time. Now imagine the potential effects of these two approaches in the way we speak to ourselves…
If you notice that you speak to yourself in a critical, harsh and uncaring manner whenever you fail in something or whenever you make a mistake, a self-compassion practice would include to think of yourself as a small child (your Inner Child) and talk to you accordingly. When you are less-than-good-enough, the approach that will help boost your confidence and faith in yourself is the one that will empathetically tend to your needs and encourage you to act differently in the future, instead of the one that aims to kick you further down and make you feel worthless and more disappointed with yourself.
When you think of compassion towards others, it includes first the mindful observation that they are suffering, and then the empathy in really feeling their pain. After all, compassion originally means “to suffer with someone”. Moreover, the recommended attitude would be a warm, understanding and kind supportive one aiming to soothe the pain of the other, and encouraging them in finding solutions to make it all better. After all, no one is perfect. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the human experience.
Similarly, the three defining elements of self-compassion, according to Kristin Neff, are:
Mindfulness: Non-judgmental awareness of the painful experience, rather than either ignoring or amplifying its emotional impact
Self-kindness: Treating yourself as you would treat a small child; refraining from criticism and harsh remarks on yourself
Humanity: Reminding yourself that you are only human, and just like everyone else, you are not perfect- in contrast, you are bound to make mistakes and act in ways that do no not rise up to the expectations you set for yourself.
In practice, this would mean to have an attitude of conscious observation of your shortcomings, without beating yourself up for it.
Think of an issue that you struggle with, that makes you feel bad about yourself. This can be either a behaviour that you wish you could change, or an aspect of your appearance, or an incident that you wish you would have acted differently.
Now imagine a friend who is wise, compassionate and loves you unconditionally, able to see both your strengths and weaknesses, even in the moments that you find it difficult to see the good in yourself.
Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of your imaginary caring friend. What would they say to you that would demonstrate that they truly understand where you’re coming from and what you’re dealing with? What words of wisdom and kindness would they choose to encourage and support you in your challenge?
Alternatively, you can imagine a dear friend to you that faces a similar difficulty like the one you have, and consider how you would approach them in order to help them out and encourage them to get out of the dark place that they have found themselves into.
Read your letter once again- Can you apply the same words and advice to yourself?
Dialogue between the Different Parts within Yourself
We all have different Parts within ourselves. You can recognize them if you listen closely to the inner dialogue that runs in the background of your mind, especially during moments that you are unsure of the course of action to take. This by no means indicates that you are “crazy” – it is completely normal to have distinct parts within ourselves, and recognizing them all can help us integrate them into a Whole. If you tend to be critical to yourself upon acting poorly or making mistakes, you may have a strong Inner Critic part. In such a situation, another part of yourself is the Criticized.
Think of a current situation that you regretted about the way you behaved in hindsight, and that you thought you could have acted better.
First allow your Inner Critic to voice their opinion, even if this sounds harsh. Unleash all of your self-criticism and judgment towards yourself. Be mindful and conscious of the tone of voice, the arguments and the emotions evoked by the words of the Inner Critic. Subsequently, allow the Criticized part of yourself to take a turn. How did it feel to be so relentlessly and harshly judged? For instance “I feel so hurt by all that for which you accuse me. You put me down. Now I feel even worse and worthless.”
Now we all also have an Observer within us- it is that Part of ourselves that mindfully observes whatever is taking place within us. Some of us are better trained to get in touch with the observer- with the ability to be mindful and self-aware.
After both the Inner Critic and the Criticized part have spoken up, it is time for the Compassionate Observer to be allowed to talk. Allow that wise, compassionate and caring Part of yourself to address both the Inner Critic and the Criticized, without judgement, offering understanding of the situation and emotional state of both parts.
What insights and new perspectives does your Compassionate Observer offer you?
If you tend to be overly critical and mean to yourself, I can help you develop an attitude of Self-Compassion.
Such a shift will undoubtedly benefit you in many areas of your life.
You can contact me here.