On the stage of life, the spotlight doesn’t shine evenly. Some themes take center stage, while others
lie cloaked in dimness. Take compassion, for instance. Let’s say that someone asked you to list all of the messages and advice you’ve received over the years about showing kindness toward others and how valuable it is to do so. And you could pull from any source you remember, such as your parents or other family members, friends, romantic partners, teachers, your role models, colleagues, strangers you crossed paths with, books, music, or TV shows and movies. By the time you finished, in all probability, your list would be quite extensive, wouldn’t it? But how often have we heard about the significance of being kind and compassionate toward ourselves and how to do it? I’m betting that for the majority of us (including me), it’s happened far less often. I think it’s one of those little ironies in the world of relationships that the relationship we have with ourselves, the very person we spend more time with than anyone, is the one that arguably receives the spotlight the least.
Now I realize that the idea of paying attention to how we treat ourselves may not seem all that important at first glance. It makes sense to wonder, “In the end, what difference will it actually make? Would it really change anything?” Or perhaps it strikes you as somewhat selfish and you’re asking whether the act of caring for yourself will subtract from your ability to be a good partner, friend, parent, or adult child. You certainly wouldn’t be alone in pondering that question. And if you’re concerned that being compassionate, reassuring, and forgiving of yourself will undermine your ability to achieve your goals and thrive, you’ve got company there too. Sometimes people are scared to be kinder and less critical toward themselves, thinking they’re letting themselves off the hook after they make mistakes and believing this sets them up for a downward spiral of even more errors and slip-ups.
So if you’ve been reading this with an eye-roll as you think about the idea of being kind and compassionate toward yourself, thanks for sticking with me so far. And second, if you’re willing, I hope you’ll stay here a little longer because we’re going to do a little exploration of self-compassion so we can get a sense of what’s in it for us.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion has three elements:
This means treating yourself with consideration, gentleness, and thoughtfulness in the face of suffering or missteps. You speak to yourself kindly, with the same sort of empathy and warmth as you’d show to someone you care about who comes to you for advice and a supportive ear.
This involves reminding ourselves that in those moments when we stumble or are having a tough time, we’re not the only ones. It’s part of being human to drop the ball at times, to hurt, or to have flaws. Now it feels important to be clear that the intention behind common humanity isn’t to cheapen or downplay suffering, as if to say, “Hey, others have it rough too, so don’t feel bad.” Sometimes when we humans come face-to-face with our own inner struggles, flaws, confusion, challenges in life, or inevitable failures, we can feel more disconnected from people. The little inner voice of the mind may say something like, “Why can’t I get it together like other people? They don’t seem to have problems like mine, and they’re happier, more assured, and successful too. What’s wrong with me?” If we stop and remind ourselves that we’re not alone in these experiences, we can offer ourselves a bit of relief to at least know that we’re normal and in good company with the rest of the human race.
When we’re being mindful, we’re allowing ourselves to notice upsetting emotions and ideas that flit through our mind without either pushing them away or holding onto them too tightly. Although mindfulness can be challenging at times, rest assured that the ability to be mindful grows with practice and patience. But why can it be tricky? First, when upsetting thoughts, memories, or feelings arise, it can be understandably tempting to try and avoid them. Second, it’s not always so simple to observe a thought without buying into it or judging it because our friend the mind has a special talent for whipping up beliefs that certainly seem true, even when they’re not (e.g., “I’m worthless.”). And third, we humans can find ourselves so caught up in an emotion that it feels like the emotion is driving us, making it tough to change the channel and think about our situation from a different perspective. If my parents could chime in right now, they’d probably tell you about the time when I was a teenager and caught a man in the act–literally– of trying to steal my car. And did I do the safe, sensible thing and go get help? Not at all. I was so furious that my feet couldn’t carry me to the would-be thief fast enough, at which point I confronted him, very loudly and with language I won’t repeat here. Fortunately for me, it worked and he fled, but looking back I know I just got lucky. It could have backfired on me terribly to act on my anger, but I was so carried away by my feelings that I really wasn’t mindful of that at the time.
So in a nutshell, when we accept our inner experience (rather than reject it or become immersed in it), when we remember that we’re not alone in our suffering, and when we treat ourselves with kindness and consideration, we’re being self-compassionate. But what do we get out of it?
It turns out that people who treat themselves with more compassion are also more kindhearted, gracious, and effective partners. The partners of self-compassionate individuals consider them to be more tender, thoughtful, connected, understanding, and supportive of their freedom than the partners of people who aren’t so kind to themselves. Not only that, self-compassionate folks are also more likely to handle disagreements with loved ones by trying to find a middle ground, and to do so with greater sincerity and serenity.
Personal Growth and Achievement
For a number of people, self-compassion understandably arouses the concern that this means giving oneself a free pass to stagnate or go backwards rather than strive to continue evolving and becoming a better human being. After all, if we allow our inner scolder to ease up, won’t that reduce our drive to push ahead and improve? And yet, what’s so intriguing is that the science doesn’t bear out what many of us intuitively believe. Research reveals that when people reflect on their personal imperfections in a compassionate way, this leads them to believe that it’s possible to improve upon their faults, enhances their ambition to do, and helps them take corrective steps to grow. And self-compassion also boosts creativity. Self-criticism is linked to lower levels of imaginative, fresh thinking. But when people who tend to be hard on themselves try thinking in a self-compassionate way, this creative block goes away and they’re just as creative as people who don’t criticize themselves as much.
Health and Wellness
People who are kinder to themselves are also more likely to take care of their bodies by living a healthier lifestyle. Plus, greater self-compassion forecasts less intense posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms over time among combat veterans, even when you take other meaningful factors into account, such as how much combat someone faced or how severe their PTSD symptoms were. And among sexual minorities, who sadly face considerable prejudice and discrimination, self-compassion predicts how happy they are with their lives, even in the face of widespread injustice.
So let’s say you’re willing to try showing yourself a little more self-compassion. How might you start? Here are some ideas:
- Consider reflecting on a challenging experience that you’re facing now or that you’ve faced before. Or maybe you’d find it more useful to consider a personal flaw or mistake you’ve made, or a time when you tried to reach a goal and didn’t make it. As a starting point, don’t call to mind anything too stressful, and if you feel overwhelmed at any point, stop. You might choose to write down whatever topic you select, but if that doesn’t work for you, it’s certainly fine to think it over without writing anything too. Opt for what feels right to you. Now, try jotting down or thinking about how you’re not alone in what you’re facing, and how other people also wrestle with similar issues. Or if you prefer, try writing to yourself or talking to yourself about the matter in hand in a loving, caring, gentle, and understanding way. If this helps, ask yourself, “How would I talk to a loved one or a close friend who’s going through something similar?” That’s the kind of tone and language you’re aiming for.
When you catch your inner critic talking to you, stop and notice it in the moment. Now imagine that this critical voice isn’t in your head, but is a person who’s standing right behind you, uttering the same words to you. How would you respond to that person? I’ve asked a number of people this question, and most answers more or less involve yelling at the person and telling them to go away. But if it’s one response I have yet to hear, it’s that they’d agree with the person. And yet, this is what we’re doing when we buy into that inner critic. A reminder that you wouldn’t agree with these same sorts of statements if they came from someone else may help you to create a little extra distance from sharp, biting thoughts and make them easier to question.
Keep in mind that negative, unkind thoughts about yourself, as painful as they are, are just thoughts, not an established reality. This will probably be tough to do at first, especially if the harsh thoughts feel like they have a potent ring of truth to them. But remember, the strength of a belief isn’t the most reliable gauge of how accurate it is. Once upon a time, people believed that Earth was the center of the universe, a belief we now know to be quite false.
In the grand scheme of things, we actually spend a relatively short period of time being parented by our caregivers. For the lion’s share of life, we’re essentially parenting ourselves as we work on our own personal development. Give yourself permission to pause and ask yourself what kind of treatment you genuinely want. Would you rather be on the receiving end of a bitter, unrelenting, punitive critic, or a positive coach who encourages you to do your best and reminds you with a kind, understanding pat on the shoulder that everyone hits rough ground at times? If I had to hazard a guess at which one you’d choose, I’d bet it’s the latter. Unfortunately, we don’t have the power to choose what family we’re born into and what kind of treatment we’ll receive, but thankfully, we can decide what sort of treatment we’ll give to ourselves. It takes practice, but it’s doable.
Consider listening to a podcast on mindfulness and meditation, or search online for local meditation classes. This is a wonderful way to start learning about mindfulness and bringing it into your everyday life in a way that feels right for you.