Unlike self-criticism, which asks whether you’re good enough, self-compassion asks, “what’s good for you?” Dr.Kristin Neff
Most of us, when we’re not trying to remember where we put our phones, or whether there’s spinach stuck between our teeth, are too busy berating ourselves for how inadequate we are and what we could have, would have, should have done. The soundtracks running through our brains prominently feature singles such as these:
“Oh, what a doofus I am,”
“I will always be clumsy,”
“Stairway to my messy existence,”
And if you think this kind of negative self-talk is restricted to those who’ve had very challenging life circumstances, you are wrong. Very wrong, in fact.
In reality, self-admonishment is rampant. It has very little to do with how successful we are, how we perceive our own capabilities, or how much self-esteem we possess. We just seem to perversely like being unkind to ourselves, which is why we are often our harshest critics and, in the process, cause ourselves unnecessary grief.
And the way out of this problem seems to be through self-compassion. Research now supports the consensus that self-compassion is a key factor to target in well-being interventions and to alleviate psychological distress.
What exactly is self-compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff, associate professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, has made it her life’s work to research, understand and promote the practice of self-compassion.
Dr. Neff defines self-compassion as having three critical components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness is the ability to treat ourselves with kindness, especially under difficult circumstances.
If a friend messes up, it’s unlikely that we’d pounce on them with, “What a moron you are!” but when we are the ones who screw up, all bets are off as we eagerly rattle off the most colorful expletives in our vocabulary—all of it directed at ourselves.
Self-compassion means speaking to ourselves with the same patience, care, and understanding tone we’d employ when talking to a fumbling friend.
Common humanity is the “It’s okay. It could happen to anyone,” sentiment.
Acknowledging that struggle is an integral part of the human experience and that setbacks and letdowns happen to everyone can liberate us and allow us to feel less alone and more empathetic to ourselves.
The third component of self-compassion is the ability to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings in the present moment. It is the ability to feel and ride our emotions out without suppression, avoidance, or judgment.
Truths about self-compassion
Before delving into the practical aspects of how to be compassionate to ourselves, here are a few truths about self-compassion.
Self-compassion is better than self-confidence or self-esteem
I have this weird self-esteem issue where I hate myself, yet I still think I’m better than anyone else.
It is easy in life to develop an air of confidence and superiority in our abilities over time and feel like we know better, even when we don’t.
Armchair quarterbacks are great examples. They believe they would make better coaches, better managers, or better owners—all while seated in the cushy comfort of their fully reclined Lazyboys, never having stepped on to a football field.
Dr. Neff, in an interview with “The Atlantic” magazine, stresses how in order to have high self-esteem, you have to feel special and above-average. Neff says, “If someone said, ‘Oh, your performance was average,’ you would feel hurt by that, almost insulted.”
But elevated self-esteem has consequences. Research has shown that high levels of self-esteem can be associated with negative outcomes, such as narcissism, aggression, and defensiveness.
Also, when we are full of self-confidence and self-esteem, it’s possible to vastly overestimate our abilities, which, in turn, may lead us to fail. And it is at that point, precisely, that we need self-compassion to get back up. This is why self-compassion is, in many ways, better than self-esteem and self-confidence.
Self-compassion is not the same as affirmations
Affirmations are positive statements that we repeat to ourselves, aimed at improving our self-esteem or confidence. They can be helpful in challenging negative self-talk and beliefs, and can help us reframe our thoughts in a more positive light.
But, in the face of failure, it’s important to acknowledge what went wrong, without minimizing the failure, and yet stay kind, understanding and accepting towards ourselves.
Self-compassion isn’t some new-age woo-woo
Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership and the author of “Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Past Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives” wrote an article in the NY Times about the importance of self-compassion especially for stressed out teens.
“It’s common for people to think of self-compassion as an excuse to lower your standards or give up instead of ‘sucking it up’ and dealing. As an educator from a mostly immigrant, bootstrapping family, I once might have agreed…. Self-compassion is precisely the kind of New-Agey trend some of my crustier relatives might have called piffle, a way to brush off mistakes instead of owning them.”
But Simmons argues, self-compassion isn’t piffle. It neither makes you wallow in self-pity, nor turns you into a wallflower. Put simply, having self-compassion means you can be nice and still succeed.
How to practice self-compassion
Here are some practical tips for cultivating self-compassion:
Don’t say things to yourself you wouldn’t to a friend. Treat yourself as you would treat a good friend by offering support, encouragement, and compassion.
Be self-aware: Mindfulness is a major part of this. You won’t try to fix something unless you know it’s broken. Notice when you are being self-critical and judgmental.
Ask for help when needed: seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Most of us would think twice about spending even an hour with someone who’s constantly critical of us. And yet, within ourselves, we often have a non-stop critic blaring into our ears and amping up the volume at the most inopportune times—when we face failures. That can’t be pleasant, can it?
But, as Dr. Neff says,
“Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up. We just need to learn to make friends with our inner critic.”
And we can do that by practicing some self-compassion, which, by the way, is not some newfangled silliness.