Could you imagine a good friend calling to tell you she didn’t get the job she interviewed for and replying – ‘Well, what were you thinking applying for that job anyway? It’s well out of your league. There are people a lot more experienced than you, not to mention more intelligent and accomplished. It’s no wonder you didn’t get it’. Ouch! Of course, you wouldn’t say that, right? You’re much more likely to reassure your friend of her worth and remind her that other opportunities will arise. Then why, if you wouldn’t be so critical with a friend, is there such a strong tendency for us to berate ourselves when we make a mistake or don’t succeed? If it weren’t for my own personal experiences of being highly self-critical in the past, I’d probably be quite astounded at the number of people I meet who are very kind and empathic towards others yet so unkind to themselves.
So, what is self-compassion exactly? Self-compassion is about being kind, gentle and understanding towards ourselves, accepting we’re not perfect and make mistakes, and being patient with ourselves as we continuously learn and grow throughout our lives. It involves 3 main components. The first is Self-kindness, which involves not being self-critical, taking care of our needs, and being patient with ourselves. The second component is Common Humanity, which involves remembering that we’re not alone, that everyone makes mistakes and has weaknesses, and that comparing ourselves to others is not realistic or fair. The third component involves Mindfulness, a practice which facilitates us being non-judgemental, not allowing our emotions to overwhelm us, and displaying a more accepting and open attitude towards our experiences.
For something which is so crucial for our well-being, you may be wondering why we find it so hard to show ourselves compassion. It certainly doesn’t come naturally to most of us. I believe there are a number of reasons for this:
Lack of appropriate modelling – Self-compassion is something we’re just not taught when we’re growing up. And, since children learn from what they observe, parents and other important adults in their lives who haven’t learnt to be compassionate with themselves tend to pass this down to their children.
Excessive criticism or lack of love in childhood – Highly critical or shame-filled environments set the scene for low self-worth, which inevitably leads to the inability or reluctance to feel love or compassion for oneself. One thing I learnt after I smugly crossed oceans to escape a critical past was that my worst enemy resided in my own head. As adults we can move away from highly critical or abusive environments, only to find that we take over where the critical or abusive parent left off. Many adults enter therapy completely unaware of just how unkind they are with themselves. They then face the challenge of believing they deserve better and learning to treat themselves with kindness and understanding.
The myth that being kind and gentle with yourselves is indulgent and selfish – Since when should caring for ourselves mean that we cannot also care for others. In fact, taking care of ourselves puts us in a better position to be fully present and available for others. We’re not really in a position to do our best for those around us if we’re stressed, exhausted and depleted of energy now, are we?
The belief that being self-compassionate will make us complacent and lazy – Being self-compassionate doesn’t mean that you disregard or ignore your mistakes or failures. It doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard to achieve your goals. This myth is based on the belief that criticising and being cruel to ourselves is the only thing that will push us to achieve our goals, but the reverse is actually true. Constant self-criticism eventually wears us down, reducing our self-worth and making us more likely to give up. Self-compassion is, in fact, closely linked with resilience, making us more likely to pick ourselves up after a setback.
Our quest for ‘Perfection’ – It’s quite alarming how many people equate their self-worth with the number of likes they receive on social media, or on comparisons with their peers or celebrities. While some of us are talking about the benefits of self-compassion, the rest of the world seems to be screaming ‘You need to do better, achieve more, be slimmer, more beautiful and successful’. Being self-compassionate is about accepting it’s okay to be imperfect and that perfection is, in fact, an unattainable myth.
A number of barriers to adopting a more self-compassionate outlook may exist, but there’s no disputing that kindness and self-love are the way to go in terms of us living healthier, happier lives. In fact, we can be self-compassionate in so many ways. See below for some tips on incorporating some self-love and kindness into your life:
- Don’t downplay your achievements. We have a tendency to focus on our failures or errors whilst giving little or no importance to our successes. Not really very fair now, is it? Go on, risk a little self-indulgence and pat yourself on the back every now and then.
- If you make a mistake, acknowledge it but don’t get stuck in a vicious cycle of rumination and self-criticism. Instead, turn your inner dialogue into a more patient and understanding one. For example, tell yourself ‘I made a mistake but I’m only human. Everyone makes mistakes’. Then see what you can learn from it, thus trying to turn the situation into an opportunity to grow and develop. Tearing yourself to pieces isn’t going to reverse the mistake so you may as well try to adopt a more positive attitude towards the situation.
- Get in touch with what you need and act on it – if you’re tired, rest; if you’re unwell, don’t go into work; if you’re feeling overwhelmed, do whatever you need to de-stress and feel well again. It’s actually so simple but most of us fight against our body’s warning signs to slow down.
- When feeling low or anxious, do something which makes you feel safe and loved. Call a friend, listen to your favourite music, have a soothing cup of tea, cook your favourite meal, watch a funny film, and so on.
- Allow people to take care of you every so often. I have to admit, this is a hard one. How many times are you in need of support or help and when someone offers a hand, you refuse? Crazy, right? Even if it’s something as simple as the offer of a cup of tea, practice saying ‘yes’. Being kind to yourself also involves allowing others to treat you well and in doing so, you’re also benefitting from connection with others. It’s a win-win!!
- Remind yourself that your value and worth are unconditional, and that you’re good enough just as you are. A good way to do this is to actually tell yourself ‘I love and accept myself just as I am’. You may feel weird but it works!
I like to remind my clients, particularly those who find self-compassion difficult, that we need to be patient with ourselves when working on building a healthier and kinder relationship with ourselves. It’s not intense work we do for a few months, after which we’re miraculously full of love and compassion for ourselves. It’s a life-long process for most of us, especially if we’ve spent most of our lives not being particularly kind with ourselves. It does get easier with practice, however, and the benefits are well worth the hard work. Some of these include increased life satisfaction, increased self-esteem, reduced perfectionism, increased optimism, and reduced depression, anger and anxiety. And, with that, I’ll leave you with the wise words of Oscar Wilde, ‘To love yourself is the beginning of a life-long romance’.