The Power of Self-Compassion

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“Do you have a critical voice?  What do you find it saying to you?”

These two questions are at the heart of the matter for self-compassion researchers Kristen Neff and Chris Germer.  What they’ve confirmed over years of study is that for many of us, we are our own worst enemy.

Sadly, this is true for kids as well as adults.

When we mess up, make a mistake, or in some way “fail” at a task, we too often find ourselves stewing on it in our minds with self-talk that only compounds the problem.  “You’re such a screw up.”  “No one’s going to like you or believe in you.”  “You’re not smart/pretty/popular/strong… enough.  You’re just not good enough.”  “You’re not worthy.  You’re worthless.”

Self-doubt can quickly slide down a slippery slope into self-criticism, self-loathing, self-hatred, and even self-harm.  For an alarmingly rising rate of teens, this is exactly what’s happening.

Kristen Neff and her colleagues have helped us see the value in an alternative choice – one of self-compassion rather than overly harsh self-criticism.  And, thankfully, they’ve shown us pathways for how to cultivate this healthier habit of mind.

First, let’s be clear what self-compassion is.

The easiest way to think about self-compassion is this.  What if you had a friend who made a mistake or was struggling with something that wasn’t going well for them.  What if they were bumming out and getting down on themselves for it, feeling like they were messed up or worthless.  What would you do?  What would you say to them?

Odds are you would try to console them.  You would reassure them, honestly, about their true value as person. You’d let them know how much you care about them. You’d remind them of the good things about them and their lives.  You might help them learn from this difficult experience or find the silver lining in it.

You wouldn’t berate them, kick them when they’re down, and confirm that they’re a total f-up!

SO, as Neff and her colleagues are fond of asking, “What if you started to treat yourself like you would treat a good friend?”

That’s self-compassion: treating yourself like you would treat a close friend who was struggling.  It’s be-friending yourself.  (This fits perfectly with our mindfulness practices that promote a “tend and befriend” approach to being with stressful experiences, rather than falling so quickly into “fight or flight.”)

Second, let’s be clear what self-compassion is not.

Myth # 1: Some people believe self-compassion is selfish.  Actually, not so! Research studies show that those who practice self-compassion are more caring and supportive in their relationships with others.  They’re more likely to be forgiving and better at perspective-taking (considering the perspectives of others).  They’re more willing to compromise and to resolve conflicts through collaborative problem-solving, rather than dominating or giving in.

Myth #2: Some believe self-compassion is weak.  Actually, not so!  Research shows that practicing self-compassion leads to more effective coping with interpersonal conflicts (eg., fighting, divorce).  It leads to greater strength and healing from chronic health conditions.  And it’s been shown to lessened the likelihood of developing PTSD after combat trauma in war.  It short, self-compassion, makes you more resilient and hardy in the face of life stressors.

Myth #3: Some believe self-compassion is self-indulgent – it will make you lazy and less motivated.  Actually, not so!  Research shows that those of us with more self-compassion (rather than self-criticism) have less fear of failure and are more likely to persist in reaching their goals.  We’re more likely, not less, to take personal responsibility for our decisions, and to take more constructive actions to repair past mistakes.

Third, let’s be clear how to practice self-compassion.

There are three main components that help us cultivate self-compassion.

First, we bring a mindful awareness to the difficulty at hand.  We acknowledge that there is suffering here, without over-identifying with it or trying to suppress or deny it.  We allow ourselves to “be” with the painful feelings as they are – without clinging to them or pushing them away or having to “do” anything with them at all. We might say to ourselves, simply, “This is a moment of suffering.” or “This is hard right now.”  We can NAME it.

Second, we bring a broader perspective to our problems, recognizing them as fundamentally human.  To err is human!  We are not alone.  We are not uniquely flawed.  We all make mistakes.  Life is imperfect.  With self-compassion, we see our own experience as part of a larger human experience, rather than isolating ourselves and thinking of ourselves as abnormal in some way.  We might say to ourselves, “You are not alone.” or “We all feel this way sometimes.”  We can NORMALIZE it.

Third, we bring loving-kindness to ourselves, rather than criticism and condemnation.  We treat ourselves with care and understanding rather than harsh judgment. We bring a desire to alleviate our suffering, not wallow in it.  We might say, “May I be kind to myself.” or “You are loved.”  We can NURTURE our self.

Take a Self-Compassion Break – regularly!

When things get rough, you can pause, breathe, and take a Self-Compassion Break (brief guided meditations with Kristen Neff).  Try it! More than once.

If at first it feels awkward or odd, or if your inner-critic starts barking at you again, keep at it.  Set the intention to be more kind and compassionate towards yourself, even if it doesn’t come naturally at first.

There is more good news from current research: self-compassion is not a fixed trait – it’s not that you either have it or you don’t.  It’s something that can be learned, can be grown, so that you can reap the benefits described above.

You, and your children, deserve no less.

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