“It wasn’t until I accepted myself, just as I was, that I was free to change.”
– Carl Rogers
How many times have you judged yourself harshly for failing to live up to your expectations? If you’re like most people, the number is probably too high to count. Self-criticism, self-judgment, self-shaming – these are among the common tools in most people’s self-improvement toolbox. Trouble is, they don’t work. In fact, studies have shown that self-criticism makes us less able to cope with failure, less likely to learn from our mistakes, and more insecure and stressed.
Treating yourself with self-compassion, on the other hand, is proving to be one of the most effective ways to feel better and make a change. According to self-compassion researcher and author Dr. Kristin Neff, sustained change comes about when we’re kind to ourselves, rather than when we’re harsh. Additional benefits include increased resiliency and decreased anxiety and depression.
What is self-compassion?
Neff defines self-compassion as the practice of “being kind to ourselves when life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we don’t like.” It also involves mindfulness and the acceptance of imperfection as part of the human condition. Chances are, you already practice compassion with others when they’re feeling down, by listening and gently reassuring them that they’re not alone. Imagine doing this for yourself!
How do we practice self-compassion?
Neff breaks it down into three parts:
1. Self-kindness vs. self-judgment, or being gentle rather than ignoring or criticizing yourself when you’re down. Research shows that the more we can accept that life brings challenges, that things don’t always go the way we want, the more sympathy and warmth we can bring to ourselves.
2. Common humanity vs. isolation, or remembering that you are not alone. All humans suffer, feel inadequate, and make mistakes. It can feel terribly lonely. But the more we are able to remember that we are not alone in our suffering, the less isolated we will feel.
3. Mindfulness vs. over-identification, or observing our thoughts and feelings in the present moment, without judgment. By bringing awareness to our thoughts and feelings, rather than getting swept up in them or ignoring them, we can find more balance and compassion. For example, Neff points out, “we can’t ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same.”
Self-compassion does not mean letting yourself off the hook
Concerned that self-compassion might be an excuse for being soft on yourself? If so, you’re not alone. Most of us equate being hard on ourselves with being strong. But research shows that self-compassion leads to more accountability and motivation, not less. Why? It turns out that telling yourself you’re worthless, or dwelling on the ways you’ve failed, actually increases your fear of failure. Such thoughts also increase your stress and anxiety levels and decrease your energy to make a change.
Self-compassion can be learned
For most of us, the habits of self-compassion don’t come easily. As Neff says. “You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals.” But all these challenges are part of what makes us human. And the more we practice saying yes to our essential humanness, the more we will be able to feel compassion for ourselves and for others. With practice, self-compassion can be learned!
Getting the support you need
Check out Dr. Neff’s website (http://self-compassion.org) for more information, resources, and videos about self-compassion. Additionally, if you’re having a hard time believing you’re worthy of self-compassion, or if you’d like help as you try out new ways of thinking about yourself, consider reaching out to us at Mindful Therapy Group. We have a wide range of providers available to support you at our Mountlake Terrace, Seattle, and Southcenter locations.
-Dr. Kristin Neff: Self-Compassion Website
-Meditation Teacher & Psychologist Tara Brach
-Stanford Medicine Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
*Written by Laura Hirschfield, an MSW Intern at Mindful Therapy Group.