Often self-criticism is our default pattern. We believe that by being hard on ourselves, we'll become better. This thinking is wired into our belief system by a culture that isn't all that forgiving.
Cultural Ideals: Society reinforces the belief that "good" people do for others first. We grow up thinking that others are our first priority and more important than our own self-interests. So, while we may be very supportive and compassionate of others, we don't practice that kindness with ourselves.
Self-Indulgence: If you do decide to treat yourself better, chances are you'll think this is an undisciplined, lazy, self-indulgent way to go. Historically, we've been taught that if we lay back and go easy, we're simply not applying ourselves. Kindness, though, is not self-indulgence; it's care. When you get this, you'll understand the power of self-compassion.
Self-Criticism: Criticism is the Type A cousin to self-indulgence and another barrier to self-compassion. Just as you've been taught self-indulgence is bad, you may also believe it takes a stern, demanding, kick-ass, screamer kind of coach to get results and push you to your potential. If you go with this train of thought, you could argue that being a bully is better than being supportive. But that's just not true. Over-the-top self-criticism is demeaning, stifling and unproductive.
Constructive feedback and appropriate criticism from others can be helpful. It helps you see where things went wrong so that you can do better next time around; repeatedly beating yourself up or allowing others to attack your character, though, not so much.
That kind of unforgiving reaction keeps us close to our fight-or-flight response and shoots stress hormones — best used for outrunning lions — through our bodies. Since most of us aren't living with the King of Beasts, we get all hyped up and stressed out with no place to go. So the battle rages internally. When we criticize ourselves we become both the attacker and the attacked and end up hurting and exhausted.
We would never teach our children to hurl insults at a friend who forgot their multiplication tables, so why do we do it to ourselves? Today, we can step into our strength, and personal power. Today, we can learn to live easier with our mistakes and to develop a habit that is both empowering and inspiring — the habit of self-compassion.
Quiz: How self-compassionate are you?
Read each statement, and then answer yes or no.
- When I fail at something important to me, I become consumed by feelings of inadequacy.
- I try to be understanding and patient toward those aspects of my personality that I don't like.
- When something painful happens, I try to take a balanced view of the situation.
- When I'm feeling down, I tend to feel like most other people are probably happier than I am.
- I try to see my failings as part of the human condition.
- When I'm going through a very hard time, I give my-self the caring and tenderness I need.
- When something upsets me, I try to keep my emotions in balance.
- When I fail at something that's important to me, I tend to feel alone in my failure.
- When I'm feeling down, I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that's wrong.
- When I feel inadequate in some way, I try to remind myself that feelings of inadequacy are shared by most people.
- I'm disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies.
- I'm intolerant and impatient toward those aspects of my personality I don't like.
First, make a note of the answers you recorded to questions 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10. These are indicators of self-compassion. If you filled in these blanks with a lot of yeses, you probably tend to be kind to yourself even when things aren't going your way.
Second, tally your answers for questions 1, 4, 8, 9, 11, 12. If you answered yes to these, you're probably one to beat yourself up over anything you feel that you don't get right (like quiz answers!). Try cutting yourself some slack. Look for ways to appreciate your efforts and errors instead of coming down so hard on yourself and you'll live a healthier, happier life.
Questions reprinted with permission from Kristin Neff and self-compassion.org.
Steps for self-compassion
Self-compassion allows you to meet life with an open-heartedness and a tolerance that allows you to fully enjoy your successes and better manage the mistakes. It doesn't eliminate the pain, or change the reality of the experience, but it helps you move through it easier.
- Admit what happened and how you feel about it. Acknowledge the severity of the offense.
- Understand why it happened. What are the things that caused these circumstances?
- Acknowledge the mistake. Don't judge it, just see your responsibility in it.
- Accept your humanness. Making a mistake doesn't mean you're a bad person, who does everything wrong. It means that in that moment, that one single instance, you messed it up. Now you'll fit in with the rest of us.
Here's how it works: Say you missed a work deadline. That's a pretty serious offense in my business. Not only did you not plan your time well, but you kept others waiting and held up the project. You feel embarrassed and disappointed and all that is heavy to carry around. But don't smack yourself upside the head; be proactive and patient with yourself. Take a moment to look at what went wrong. Perhaps you overcommitted. Acknowledge your error. Note what you can do to keep it from happening again, and then accept your humanity. Heck, we all blow it once in a while.
Not only does this process feel better, it frees you up to do better. When we start judging ourselves harshly, we get caught up in the bad feelings and have a hard time accurately identifying what went wrong. We're apt to repeat our mistakes. Self-compassion allows you to take care of the situation and your own emotional needs without crumbling under the pressure and pain of it all.
"This way, you are able to take more responsibility for past mistakes and at the same time be less distressed about them," Neff says, "because you know it's okay to be imperfect and you don't have all these expectations of yourself to be otherwise."
3 tips for practicing self-compassion
- Notice self-talk. Stop and write down verbatim what those inner voices are saying. Often we're unconscious to what we say to ourselves, yet the words and sentiment can be damaging. To break this cycle of self-sabotage have a heart-to-heart with those inner voices and get clear on what you're saying to yourself.
- Cultivate kindness. We're good at doing this for others. We take a casserole over when the baby is born, we fill in for a friend when she can't make the meeting, and we are quick to encourage others. Now give a bit back to yourself. Each day do three things consciously to nurture your body and soul.
- Respond negative emotions with compassion. You're not going to turn into some slacker if you lighten up a bit. Imagine what you would say to a friend who blows it, then say it to yourself.
Oh, and one more thing: Don't slam yourself for not being self-compassionate enough. Seriously. I know how you work — I do it too. Self-compassion is a skill to be learned. With practice, you'll get better at it.
Polly Campbell is a writer and speaker specializing in personal development and spirituality. Her work appears regularly in national publications, and she is a blogger with Psychology Today and a teacher for Daily Om and Imperfect Spirituality. For more than two decades, Polly has studied and applied the techniques she writes and speaks about to her own life.