Life is great when things are going our way- isn’t it?
Maybe you got that promotion at work, your relationship is going from strength to strength and your leisure time is filled with enjoyable pursuits. If you are one of those lucky people for whom everything is going well, then I am really happy for you. It’s likely that when things are going well like this, your self-esteem and life satisfaction is higher too.
However, the truth for most of us is that life never stays that way for very long. The uncomfortable truth is that life is filled with challenges and suffering.
How do you treat yourself when life is tough?
How do you treat yourself when you fail or make mistakes?
How do you treat yourself generally?
If you are like most people, you’re likely to be unnecessarily tough on yourself even on a good day! And when things are not going well, life becomes unbearable- on the inside.
Unwittingly, many of us create unnecessary suffering for ourselves through how we treat ourselves internally when fail, make mistakes or perform to our less than perfect standards. Well tell ourselves that we’re not good enough or not doing enough or falling short of the mark in some way. This critical way of relating to ourselves creates an inner emotional climate of stress, sadness, disappointment, envy, guilt, shame and other unpleasant (and unresourceful) feeling states.
Self-criticism is a way of relating to oneself which is harmful and involves constant and harsh self-scrutiny and evaluation. You say things to yourself that you wouldn’t dream of saying to another. Self-critical people fear what others think of them and often act in ways to gain the approval or acceptance of others eg. people pleasing behaviour.
Self-criticism is harmful because it is associated with depression and other forms of psychopathology. It is associated with rumination and procrastination. Think being too ‘in your head’ about something. It is also associated with less progress on goals (Powers et al., 2007).
What is Self-Compassion?
Generally speaking, compassion means to ‘be with’ suffering. It is the natural response to witnessing another’s suffering and the subsequent desire to alleviate that suffering. Compassion is part of our natural caregiving response which includes soothing vocalisations, skin-to-skin contact and soothing touch. All mammals have this caregiving response, it’s innate. We know how to be compassionate- that’s the good news!
Self-Compassion, then, involves turning the compassionate impulse inwards. It involves treating oneself with same care and concern that we so freely give to others and non-judgemental acceptance in response to perceived challenges and failures (Neff, 2003).
This is harder than it seems though for most people who are accustomed to berating themselves in the mistaken belief that this will motivate them towards success or to avoid the pain of failure or social judgement. It turns out, however, that the opposite is true. Self-compassionate people tend to have better success with adopting positive habits and being motivated to change, with none of the negative emotional repercussions associated with self-criticism.
What Self-Compassion is NOT
It is not the same as self-esteem. Self-compassion has been robustly researched and is distinct from self-esteem which is often contingent upon things going well for us (eg. we have high self-esteem when work is going well and lower when we haven’t reached our targets or messed up a presentation etc.)
Nor is the same of self-pity. Self-pity often leads to over-focusing on our problems such that we feel alone or isolated. Self-compassion, by contrast, unites us with others by virtue of the common experience of suffering.
Another common misconception is that if people are self-compassion that it will lead to indulgent behaviour. The fear often is that if I’m struggling emotionally with something, I’ll reach for the Ben & Jerry’s rather than choose healthful behaviours. However, this fear has been proven false. Self-indulgence involves a lack of self-regulation, whereas, self-compassion has been proven to enhance motivation and healthy habits.
Benefits of Self-Compassion
The science of self-compassion is robust, growing and hard to ignore. There’s a reason why practitioners are beginning to take notice of self-compassion as a core skill in building mental health and resilience. Here are some of the benefits associated with self-compassion which are pretty compelling! Self-compassion is associated with:• less stress and better physical health• healthier habits (eating habits, exercise and sleep)• being a tool for improving self-care• Increased resilience through positive cognitive restructuring• Increases motivation to change• Enhances self-regulation• Better coping skills (with negative emotions)• Is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety• Better romantic relationships (Neff & Beretvas, 2013)
Pillars of Self-Compassion
This refers to not becoming over-identified with the negative feelings that arise from failure of struggle but maintaining a balanced awareness of those feelings. This mindset involves a balanced awareness where we neither ignore nor exaggerate painful thoughts and emotions. This mindset can reduce stress by minimising rumination over the negative aspects of the event (Homan & Sirois, 2017). This stands in opposition to overidentification with a particular experience or emotion.
2) Common Humanity
Common humanity reminds us that we are all human. All human beings suffer and are imperfect. We all make mistakes and we all experience failure. When we realise this truth in a moment of suffering, we feel less alone. We feel connected to all of humanity. Therefore, as a result of this recognition, self-compassionate people do not feel isolated by the experience of failure or struggle but recognise that this is an essential part of what it means to be human. If common humanity had a voice, it would be:
‘I’m not the only one; other people feel this way too.’
‘This is common.’
This is the active component of self-compassion and involves being kind and caring with yourself. It involves responding to a perceived inadequacy or disappointment with understanding, patience and acceptance rather than harsh self-criticism. Instead of attacking yourself, you offer yourself warmth, kindness and unconditional acceptance.
This stands in opposition to self-judgement. Thoughts such as ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way’ or ‘I should know better’ are common when suffering arises. Instead you ask yourself, ‘What do I need most now?’ This might lead to self-caring acts or a softening of one’s inner voice.
3 Simple Steps to Kick-Start Your Self-Compassion
• Tune in to Your Inner Voice
In order to become self-compassionate, we must first become familiar with how we speak to ourselves. Often our inner voice can be loud, judgemental and downright nasty. We would never speak to others as we would to ourselves. A way you can begin to get familiar is to keep a log of your thoughts for a week. Use your emotions as a guide. Whenever you feel bad, ask yourself, ‘What did I just tell myself about this situation?’ For example, if you notice that you feel sad, see if you can trace the sadness back to a particular event. What story did your mind spin about the event? Recognising that we are not our thoughts and that we can and should challenge our thinking empowers us to develop a kinder, more compassionate internal landscape.
• Use Compassionate Touch
People who have a loud inner critic often go round and round in negative loops in their mind. By harnessing the power of soothing compassionate touch, we bypass the mind and activate the caregiving system. Using a soothing touch such as a hand on our heart or on the belly releases the love and bonding hormone oxytocin which helps us feel safe, calm, connected, generous, and, most importantly, helps us generate warmth and kindness for ourselves.
• Get on Your Own Side
Self-compassionate people are inherently ‘for themselves’. What’s so encouraging to know is that even people who grew up in environments where they were treated poorly, criticised or had their needs neglected, can develop this skill and become kinder to themselves, however hard it may seem to begin with. The good news is that most of us are already kind and compassionate, we just need to turn this inward.
A great way to begin is to imagine how you would speak to a friend if she was struggling with the same issues as you. See if you can tap into your own well of goodwill as you write some phrases down. Now try saying them to yourself as you look yourself in the eye in the mirror. Start small. Statements like ‘Hi Lauren. How are you?’, ‘You are doing the best you can’ or ‘You are stronger than you think’ can go a long way to building up a positive and caring relationship with self. Brainstorm a list of kind statements you would most like or need to hear when times get tough and use them when you need to.
• Use Adversity/Difficult Emotions as a Opportunity to Build Self-Compassion
Adversity is common. Life isn’t always easy. Adversity can be used as a cue for self-compassion; these are the very moments when it should be used. If you are going through a tough time, for example, experiencing difficult emotions, a breakup or job loss, use this as your opportunity to practice ‘The Self-Compassion Break’. This involves using the three pillars of self-compassion.
Place a hand on the heart, gently stroke your arm or some other form of compassionate touch. Any of the words/phrases below can be rewritten to sound authentic to you.
Step One: Using mindfulness, acknowledge that this is a moment of suffering.
Say: ‘This is a moment of suffering’ or ‘This is really hard!’
Step Two: Invoking common humanity, acknowledge that feeling how you do right now is what unites you with humanity. To be human is to suffer or struggle.
Say: ‘Other people feel this way too’ or ‘I know I’m not alone in feeling this way’
Step Three: Now using self-kindness, ask yourself what you need most right now. This could involve speaking kind words to yourself or taking action to alleviate your suffering such as
Self-compassion is a skill that can be developed with practice. However difficult it may seem and how ingrained your inner critic is, know that you can rewire your brain to get on your own side with practice!
Homan, K. J. & Sirois, F. M. (2017). Self-compassion and physical health: Exploring the roles of perceived stress and health-promoting behaviours. Health Psychology Open. 1-9.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity. 2(2): 85–101.
Neff, K. D. & Beretvas, S. N. (2013). The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships. Self and Identity. 12 (1), 78- 98.
Powers TA, Koestner R, Zuroff DC. (2007). Self-criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress. J Social Clinical Psychology. 26(7):826-840.