Imagine you’re going about your normal life.
You wake up a little bit late, have breakfast on the run, arrive at the office barely on time.
Shortly after, you notice that you forgot the final version of the contract for your 9 am meeting. The one your client needs to sign, to secure a new project that’s bringing significant revenue to the company.
What are the first words to pop into your mind? What do you utter to yourself?
Now imagine replacing harsh self-talk and criticism, with friendly, supportive and compassionate self-talk.
How would your days feel like if, whenever you faced a failure or shortcoming, you talked to yourself the same way your best friend would?
A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your entire life.
– Christopher Germer
Self-compassion is about relating to yourself the same way a good friend would, in a kind, concerned and supportive way.
It’s realizing that imperfection is part of life and therefore we all inevitably face struggles, failures, mistakes and feelings of inadequacy.
But we can meet these instances with kindness and presence, rather than harsh self-criticism.
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?
– Kristin Neff
For those of you who don’t know, I’m also a yoga teacher. But my journey with yoga was anything but a blissful and flawless experience. You can read more about my struggles here. (It’s a good one!)
Before I started teaching yoga, I struggled to accept my lack of flexibility.
I remember I was trying a class for the first time with this very experienced yoga teacher, who adjusted me in the poses by pulling my ponytail or slapping my arm or leg.
Note that this was the first time I attended his class (and the last).
Ouch. I think I can say he was slightly harsh. After that class, I stopped practicing for about 2 or 3 months.
Why do you think I did that? Was it because of the teacher?
Nope. That teacher was a saint compared to the critic inside my own head.
He just acted in a way that resonated. He was harsh, but I fundamentally agreed with him, his voice echoed my own.
I can’t know for sure, but looking back, had I been more compassionate towards myself, that episode might not have thrown me off the way it did.
Why We Need It More Than Ever
Here’s why I think we need this more than ever.
Years ago, before the internet and social media came along, whenever you screwed up big time, or at least, you perceived it that way, you probably didn’t have all these ideas floating around of how to be more resilient, happier, more successful, a better parent, a better partner, a better you.
Social media is what we make it be. It has some benefits and some pitfalls. Now we just have access to way more information than ever before. We also have more to compare ourselves to.
And when, inevitably, we come face to face with a challenge, with all the images of success everywhere we look, it’s easy to feel like we’re the only ones failing. Like there must be something wrong with us.
This is why self-compassion is so important. Because instead of isolating us in our shortcomings, it bring us together, connecting us to our own humanity.
It allows us to see that:
We are all imperfect and we all face setbacks but that doesn’t make us flawed. It’s the very thing that makes us so exquisitely human.
– Catarina Lino
You can watch Kristin Neff explaining self-compassion here.
Self-Compassion And Self-Esteem, Is It The Same?
Self-compassion and self-esteem are two very distinct concepts that work in different ways.
Self-esteem is a general evaluation of self-worth. It answers the question: am I a good or bad person?
For a long time, psychologists thought self-esteem was the answer to most problems. During the 90’s the self-esteem movement took off and schools and parents taught children to praise themselves.
There’s a solid reason for that, low self-esteem is related to numerous problems, including anxiety and depression.
However, high self-esteem can also be problematic. There’s an epidemic of narcissism and bullying. Bullies have high-self esteem. But they get it from harassing other children.
Self-esteem makes us believe we’re special and above average, which leads to constant comparison. If I’m special it’s because someone else is average.
And it’s conditional. It works when things are working.
When we fall flat on our face, how likely is that our self-esteem will remain intact?
But self-compassion works precisely in these moments. It’s not dependent on whether or not we’re succeeding because it’s not about praising or judging ourselves positively.
It’s about treating ourselves kindly, accepting our vulnerabilities and flaws. And it comes into play when we most need it, free of the traps of self-esteem.
Components Of Self-Compassion
So how exactly does it work? Self-compassion has 3 elements:
This means meeting your failures, shortcomings, and mistakes with kindness and understanding. Acknowledging that these experiences are a natural part of life that we all face. Instead of denying or suppressing these experiences, it’s about accepting and meeting them with warm and sympathy.
2. Shared Humanity
One of the most painful things about feelings of inadequacy is that we believe we’re alone in our pain. But being human means that we’re all vulnerable to suffering and things not turning out the way we expected them to. These feelings of inadequacy are a common thread between every single one of us.
This is about being present to our emotions. Neither blowing them out of proportion nor suppressing them. Acknowledging them for what they are, indicators of our feelings towards the current reality.
Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.
– Kristin Neff
May The Science Be With You
Why do we resort to critical self-talk, to begin with? Because we believe being kind equals indulging. And that being critical is the only way to change or act.
We use this critical way of relating to ourselves as a motivation strategy. Living by the motto: If I’m not strict on myself, how will I get things done?
But science has a thing or two to say about that.
Psychologists Claire Adams and Mark Leary invited weight-watching women into the lab to study an effect they called what-the-hell. Their theory was that if guilt sabotages self-control maybe the opposite of guilt would support self-control.
They had these weight-watching women eat a donut and glass of water (intended to make them feel uncomfortably full and hence a little guilty).
Then they split these women into 2 groups. One of the groups received a compassionate message, encouraging them to be kinder to themselves and to remember that everyone indulges sometimes. The other group received no message at all.
The second part of the study involved a candy taste test. Where all the women we’re asked to sample candies in order to rate them and could eat as much or as little as they felt like eating.
The women who still felt guilty should say to themselves: I already broke the diet, might as well indulge all I want. This is the what-the-hell effect.
- The women who received the compassionate message ate 28 grams of candy.
- The women who were not encouraged to be kind to themselves ate 70 grams of candy.
Benefits of Self-Compassion
Research shows that self-compassion is very strongly related to psychological well-being (including happiness and life-satisfaction), greater motivation, making healthier lifestyle choices, better interpersonal relationships, less stress, less anxiety and less depression.
If offers the same benefits of self-esteem but comes free of narcissism or constant comparison. It also provides a more stable sense of self-worth.
3 Steps To Tame Your Own Worst Critic
And how exactly do we put all this into practice, right?
1. Look for examples
A lot of times it’s hard for us to behave a certain way if we weren’t exposed to examples of that behavior.
This is where looking for examples can be useful. Actively pay attention to people who are showing kindness and compassion towards others and make a mental or written note about how they’re doing it, so that you can refer to that example when you need to.
Another thing that’s helpful is to write down a few sentences of things a good friend would say to you if you failed or made a mistake.
This is like preparing a speech before you actually step on stage. If you have those examples in the back of your mind, it’s easier to recover them when you’re in the midst of pain or shame.
If you notice you’re being critical towards yourself simply label it, don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.
And then breathe in to a count of 4, and breathe out to a count of 8 (or adapt using a 1/2 ratio).
This activates your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest response to stress, that will enable you to cope with the situation and remain mindful.
3. Use this little mantra
This is hard, but I don’t need to be.
I am worthy of my kindness.
When we give ourselves compassion, we are opening our hearts in a way that can transform our lives.
– Kristin Neff
With love and appreciation for you,
Next, I’d love to hear from you. How can you start showing yourself more kindness and compassion? Leave a comment below. I love learning from you.
McGonigal, K. (2013). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery Publishing Group Inc.,U.S.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1–12.