April 1st, 2021
It's been a long day, you're fed up and exhausted, what do you do? You're going through a difficult period, how do you respond?
A behaviour that we can easily fall into is self pity. Psychology Professor Kristen Neff explains that when we feel self-pity, we become immersed in our own problems and forget that others have similar problems.
We tend to feel we are the only ones in the world who are suffering, which exaggerates the extent of personal suffering.
We then struggle to step back from our situation and develop a balanced or objective perspective.
Self-compassion in contrast, provides us with the mental space to recognise the broader human context of our experiences and put things into perspective. With compassion, we recognise that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so we tend to be gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences.
Without self compassion, we can potentially have everything we could want, and still struggle to find happiness. We can feel tired all the time, depressed and stressed regardless of what we have. Always feeling we're not good enough, despite what we've actually achieved.
Giving ourselves some kindness and understanding can completely turn things around, but we're often reluctant because it seems irresponsible or unproductive. Or we may not even know how to do it because we've lived so long without it. Constantly told by productivity guru's that we just need to "do the grind" to get whatever we want.
While the world throws belief systems at you, remember this:
Self compassion doesn't mean feeling sorry for yourself. It simply allows you us to acknowledge difficult feelings or experiences with kindness, helping us accept and let go of them.
"I'm stressed out today so I'll just watch tv all day and eat a tub of ice cream." This is self indulgence rather than self compassion. Being compassionate to yourself means that you want yourself to be happy and healthy in the long term. Temporary pleasures can sometimes harm your wellbeing rather than help (e.g. drugs, stimulants, being a couch potato). Self compassion means acknowledging the stressful day you had and doing something that is good for you, with kindness. Not shaming yourself into action, but instead using your compassion as a motivating force for growth and change.
In modern Western culture, we are constantly working to build our self esteem, trying to stand out or feel special. It starts as a genuine attempt to give ourselves (or our children) the confidence we need to face the world, but can easily turn into being self-absorbed narcissistic behaviours. Self-compassion is different to self-esteem. Both linked to psychological wellbeing, but self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self worth, while self-compassion isn't a judgement or an evaluation at all. Self-esteem requires feeling better than others. We have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. Our self esteem fluctuates based on our successes and failures. With self compassion you don't need to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. It's always available to you irrespective of external circumstances or what others are doing.
I can say from personal experience that self-compassion motivates me so much more than self-criticism. Punishing ourselves for not trying hard enough or for "failing" can trigger feelings of guilt, anxiety or depression. Also, acknowledging our mistakes rather than harshly judging ourselves for them can help us pick ourselves up and try again. It creates a safe space within ourselves to fail and try again, making it an effective force for personal motivation rather than harsh self-punishment.
Spending time and energy on being kind to yourself doesn't mean you won't make time for others. Infact, the more time you spend criticising and judging yourself, the less bandwidth you have left for thinking about and helping others. Being kind to ourselves can help us meet our emotional needs, and be better placed to focus on others.
Some things we can do to help ourselves offer compassion to ourselves are:
Think about what you would say to a close friend in your situation, chances are you would use kinder language and be less likely to judge someone you care about. Offer yourself that kindness and support.
Self-compassion involves recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.
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 can't ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.
In the evening, sit down to review your day and write down anything that you felt bad about in the day or any difficult moments. Write down ways that the experience is connected to the larger human experience (e.g. "everyone overreacts sometimes, it's human."). You can write about potential causes and finally write some reassuring words of comfort for yourself. Keeping a journal will reinforce your self compassion practice to apply in daily life.
You can take a break during the day to repeat a sentence that you need to hear at that time. E.g. I am strong. I'm learning to accept myself as I am. I am patient and calm.
Self-compassion helps you be motivated, it helps you take responsibility. It's not self-indulgent, it's not selfish and it leads to better relationships and mental health.
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