Now, before you start to get up in arms that I’m anti self-compassion, hold on. I’m not! I like self-compassion and find it a useful tool when appropriate. That being said, at times I feel frustrated by the portrayal of self-compassion as the panacea cure. I notice that self-compassion is often used alongside ideas like “let it go,” “move on",” “be kind to yourself,” “fall in love with yourself,” “love and light,” etc. To be clear, I’m also not anti any of those statements! My whole exploration is to support people in connecting more with themselves and their own resilience. That being said, for many, many people, self-compassion is not their first stop in exploring.
Before we dive into what I said above, let’s talk about what self-compassion is.
Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly.
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, failing, or noticing something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself at this moment? (Dr. Kristen Neff / www.self-compassion.org).
Dr. Neff provides wonderful free resources on her site to learn more about how to practice self-compassion. Some things she invites us to consider are:
How would you treat a friend?
How do you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when he or she is suffering?
Changing your critical self-talk
By acknowledging your self-critical voice and reframing its observations in a more friendly way, you will eventually form the blueprint for changing how you relate to yourself long-term.
Identifying what we really want
Remember that if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear. Reframing your inner dialogue so that it is more encouraging and supportive helps get you there.
What self-compassion isn’t: a cure-all for stress, trauma, anxiety, mental health issues, etc.
So why is self-compassion not for everyone?
Many of us may have learned through our environment, school, family, or job that we are not worthy of self-compassion. We may not have seen it modeled for us or may have been told that we are not deserving of care.
We may have also been rewarded for achieving big things or being "perfect" and thus learned that our worth is only tied in with being "good." As adults, we know that it is rare that something will actually be perfect, but we stay stuck on the hamster wheel, convinced we must attain the unattainable before we can be kind to ourselves or before we deserve compassion.
Many of us also believe that if we are kind to ourselves, we are being self-indulgent and will no longer carry out our responsibilities, complete tasks, or do things well. We may think we will become "lazy." In fact, by speaking negatively to ourselves, criticizing ourselves, and treating ourselves as less than others, we block ourselves from truly being the best, most authentic version we can be.
We get in the way of our own agency to go after what we want, shy away from new opportunities, create anxiety in our lives by telling ourselves we aren't good enough, and generally create an increased stress load on our minds and bodies. Paradoxically, this increased stress can actually cause us to underperform, feel distracted, not complete tasks, feel angry or irritable, and have difficulty connecting to others. It can also lead us to stay in situations that make us unhappy or unfulfilled because we subconsciously believe we don't deserve anything different.
Ok, so we want to move forward toward good things, and stop getting in the way of what we want, yet, when we try to practice self-compassion, it can seem to make things worse. Why? Go back and read my previous post about our survival strategies and how they kept us safe! If you have learned to function, to keep going, to manage by criticizing yourself, then trying to jump into self-compassion and kindness is actually going to make that subconscious part of us more scared. It wasn’t safe in the past, whether literally or figuratively, to let ourselves feel relaxed enough to be self-compassionate. (Remember, many times physical safety was not actually the threat, rather we learned that others around us responded better when we were quiet, perfect, had no needs, etc.). This doesn’t mean we can NEVER ever be self-compassionate or that we can never learn to practice self-compassion. We can! But telling someone that if they just keep practicing self-compassion and self-love, then they will feel better is a recipe for disaster.
Why I’m the world’s biggest fan of neutrality.
For many of us, self-compassion is a mountain that seems impossible to climb. So where do we start to begin to alleviate the stressful burden of criticizing ourselves?
Neutrality is a step on the road of self-compassion. Neutral asks us to simply observe what we are doing and what we are saying to ourselves or about ourselves. Rather than indifference, neutrality is a curiosity that allows us to stay present to what is happening at any moment and start to interrupt the patterns in our brain that taught you that you didn't deserve kindness or that criticism was the only way to motivate you.
How do you practice neutrality? Next time you notice that you're criticizing yourself, try this simple activity. Pretend that you are a scientist in a lab or a wildlife expert on safari. Narrate what is happening for you in that moment.
"There she goes again, telling herself that she's terrible at public speaking and is going to mess up this presentation and lose her job."
"Ah yes, she's yet again telling herself she's a bad Mom after looking at Instagram while her baby is eating."
"I'm noticing that she is again telling herself she doesn't deserve to have pizza for dinner with her friends because she needs to look good for her wedding."
Notice how it feels to observe with neutrality. Notice how it interrupts your pattern, even if just for a moment. Over time, this process begins to rewire your brain, taking you out of the old pattern of criticism and shifting you into a curious, nonjudgmental stance. And then, our old friend, self-compassion slowly (slowly) begins to emerge.