Learning to treat yourself kindly when you struggle, fall short, and fail is not an easy thing. We are usually quite good at reaching out to our dear friends and family members when they face similar hardships, and we seem to know just the right thing to say or do, but when it comes to ourselves, it seems like we have a different standard. When a friend fails an important exam, you give them a hug and say “That must have been a tough exam. I know how disappointed you must feel right now. I’m here for you and we’ll get through this together.” But when you fail the same exam you might say to yourself “What’s the matter with you? What a stupid thing to do! You are lazy and you didn’t work hard enough. You don’t even deserve to be in school!”
We know that 84% of people are kinder to their friends than they are to themselves, so if this describes you, you are not alone. But the problem is that we have trouble changing that inner narrative and being kinder to ourselves, even though we know that it might be good for us. There is a huge body of research (much of it done by Kristin Neff and her colleagues in the US) that shows that self-compassion is highly related to resilience, well-being, improved mood, and a number of other things.
The primary obstacle that people face to becoming more self-compassionate is actually themselves! People have beliefs, hesitations and misgivings that prevent them from actually trying the practice, and the sad truth is that these misgivings have been mainly disproven by research.
It is worth noting that self-compassion has two complementary aspects that are referred to as the yin and yang of self-compassion. The yin side is the one that is the comforting, soothing, and nurturing aspect to self-compassion. However, self-compassion also has a more active strong side, a yang side, that is about protecting, providing, and motivating ourselves. Most people don’t get this right away (especially men) and thus dismiss self-compassion as something weak or feminine or soft. But while it has a soft side, self-compassion is incredibly powerful, strong, and resilient.
“Self-compassion is really just a form of self-pity”
At first glance, some may come to the conclusion that self-compassion is an elaborate way of facilitating a “pity party” where you get to tell yourself “oh, poor me, I’m suffering” and basically wallow in your misfortune and become mired in your own victimhood. The fact is that research suggests that people who are more self-compassionate are actually much better than others at taking the perspective of other people and not over-focusing on their own distress.
Self-pity says, “poor me” and gives up or retreats. Self-compassion says, “this is hard, but this is how it feels when people struggle in situations like this” and takes stock of the situation and allows the person to assess what they need in this situation to navigate it wisely, even if it is very hard.
“Self-compassion is weak”
It is natural for us to be alert for where we are vulnerable and to protect against potential threats, so it’s not surprising that some people might see self-compassion as weak. Our gut reaction is to tense up and brace for impact (emotionally OR physically) as a way of dealing with danger or threat, and anything that doesn’t feel firm and solid can feel a bit disconcerting.
But think about what you really know about strength, or even more importantly, resilience, which is the quality that really makes us strong. As a human capacity, it refers to our ability to recover quickly from a difficulty. Resilience is not solid and rigid, but strong and flexible, and this is what self-compassion supports.
Self-compassion is a reliable and ever-present source of inner strength that confers courage and self-reliance for us to navigate difficult circumstances with purpose and resolve. Where weakness is passive or compliant to whatever comes along and says “I give up, you win”, self-compassion says “I can meet this situation flexibly but firmly so that I can stay strong and present and keep my footing.”
“Self-compassion is really just self-centred and narcissistic.”
Similar to self-indulgence, the practice of self-compassion can seem to be rather self-centred and self-focused, as if we are prioritizing ourselves over all others. This goes against all the messages we get about helping others, putting others before ourselves, and generally focusing our compassion on those who have greater need.
When you practice self-compassion, it isn’t about directing compassion only to yourself, but simply including yourself in the circle of good will that you already cultivate so easily for others.
Why would you be any less deserving of compassion than any other human being? The research demonstrates that self-compassionate people actually tend to be more caring and supportive in romantic relationships, less jealous, and more likely to make compromises as needed in relationship conflicts.
Self-centeredness says, “I matter more than you and you need to take care of yourself,” while self-compassion says, “You and I both matter and when we are both compassionate to ourselves, we are much better able to take care of each other too.”
“I’ll lose my edge if I’m more self-compassionate”
When I hear people say that they fear losing their edge or not reaching their full potential if they are self-compassionate, I suspect that they have achieved a certain success through self-criticism, perfectionism and putting aside their feelings when they come up. Think of the medical student who has relentlessly driven herself to achieve perfect grades and excellent test scores through relentless self-flagellation and withering self-criticism. It’s hard to deny that these ways of being have helped get these people to the heights they’ve achieved, and one can understand why they would be reluctant to stop.
The sad thing is that while self-criticism can get us so far, self-compassion can take us much farther. A useful comparison is if you consider the motivational impact that a harsh, judgmental, punitive coach might have on your athletic performance, relative to a kind and supportive coach with high standards for you and a wish for you to achieve your highest performance. In reality, self-criticism turns out to undermine self-confidence and create a fear of failure instead.
Where self-criticism and perfectionism say, “Your best isn’t good enough, because you’re nothing if you don’t win”, self-compassion says “I know you have it in you to be the best. You’re trying hard and I believe you have it in you to succeed.”
I don’t actually expect you to suddenly be a true believer in self-compassion now that I have laid out some of the common misgivings and the findings of science that refute those doubts. My hope is that you now have a richer and deeper appreciation for what self-compassion actually is and what it is not, and perhaps you will be a little bit more inclined to try it out for yourself. If you find that self-compassion works for you, brings you more ease, less distress, and a more fulfilling and satisfying life, you will keep it up. You won’t need me for that.
Look for a Mindful Self-Compassion course online or near you at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion website (http://centerformsc.org).