Self-compassion is one of the most important qualities to cultivate in today’s society. It is a cultural norm to be constantly striving to work harder, to be more productive and be successful in every aspect of life. Such an environment breeds self-criticism. We often have such high standards for ourselves and beat ourselves up when we do not meet these expectations.
Interestingly though, we often find ourselves telling our friends not to be so hard on themselves, that all that matters is that they tried their best or that it’s okay that they got rejected or failed at something; there will always be another opportunity. However, when it comes to our own challenges and defeats we have a MUCH harder time giving ourselves the same advice. Instead we fall into cycles of self-doubt and harsh criticism. It seems self-compassion is almost non-existent in our vocabulary. We always hear about how we should be kind to others but what isn’t highlighted is the importance of being kind to ourselves.
Self-criticism has been linked to release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol by tapping into our innate threat defence system. By contrast, self-compassion has been found to reduce these stress hormones and increase the release of oxytocin and opiates (feel-good hormones). Thus self-compassion sets the foundation for a healthy mindset which in turn, allows for greater self-acceptance and self-confidence.
Further, research has consistently demonstrated a strong link between self-compassion and overall mental wellbeing. In fact, self-compassion has been shown to act as a buffer against negative emotions during unfavourable life events and to increase self-improvement motivation after personal failure. Basically when you’re feeling like sh*t, it pays to be kind to yourself!
So, what does it even mean to be self-compassionate?? How can we be kind to ourselves in practice?
Kristen Neff’s pioneering research suggests that self-compassion is an adaptive form of self-relation that involves the capacity to:
- Be understanding of oneself during times of difficulty rather than being self-critical.
When going through difficult periods in life we too often engage in negative self-talk, “I’m so pathetic”, “I look so gross today”, “wow, I am so dumb”. As Neff pointed out in her TED talk:
‘We often say things to ourselves that we would never say to someone we care about… we say things to ourselves that we probably wouldn’t even say to someone we didn’t like very much’.
We should instead be treating ourselves with kindness, encouragement, empathy and patience, just as we would treat those we love and especially through times of hardship.
- Acknowledge that suffering is part of the human experience rather than feeling isolated.
As humans, life is never going to be perfect. We are all going to have negative experiences or feel vulnerable at times. Thus rather than letting our misfortunes and imperfections make us feel different and isolated they should rather make us feel more connected as they are a normal part of our shared human experience.
- Be mindfully aware of painful thoughts and feelings rather than over-identifying with them or attempting to escape from them.
When experiencing negative thoughts or feelings we often either obsess over them making them worse or attempt to suppress or deny them. Mindfulness is all about developing a non-judgmental and non-reactive awareness to our thoughts and feelings. Even just being aware of these thoughts is helpful. As Neff points out, we often don’t even notice our suffering especially when it comes from our own self-judgment for example “I can’t believe I’m missing another workout, I’m so lazy. I’m never going to reach my goals”. As we become aware of these thoughts, we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that feeling guilty is a normal human emotion. By treating ourselves with compassion in these instances, we would likely live much happier lives.
It’s clear that the thing we need most in times of difficulty is to be kind to ourselves! We need to train ourselves to take notice of our negative self-talk, pause to imagine what we’d say to a friend who was in our position and treat ourselves accordingly.