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Self Compassion is Hard......And Needed

Updated: May 11

Self-compassion can be a hard thing to cultivate. What I have seen in practice is that it can be hard to cultivate because many people believe the flip side, self-criticism, is beneficial to them. Self-criticism is the "why do you keep messing this up, get it together!" type of internal thinking. I have heard many times that these types of thoughts are motivating the person to be better, do better, perform better, etc. But when we evaluate whether this is actually true by trying to find the evidence that it is indeed making them better, we often find that self-criticism is missing the mark. It is not motivating over time. In fact, over time it can lead to a pervasively negative view of the self that often isn't based on reality. The standards that we hold for others disappear when we engage in self-criticism and we are all the sudden holding ourselves up to impossible standards that we would never impose on someone else. When we take a step back and evaluate, the overuse of self-criticism is often a contributing component to stress, anxiety, and depression.


This is where self-compassion comes in. First, we need to define it by what it is not. Self-compassion is not rose colored glasses, self-compassion is not blind positivity that borders on delusion, self-compassion is not self-pity, self-compassion is not something that releases you from your goals and the expectation you have for yourself in your life, self-compassion is not self-esteem (which frequently depends on achievement) and self-compassion is not weakness. The psychologist Dr. Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as having three components (Neff, 2003).


1) The first component is self-kindness versus self-judgment. This means being understanding with yourself rather than harshly critical. As discussed above being harshly self-critical just does not work over time. Take a stance of kindness with yourself and recognize that failing, being imperfect or having difficulties is inevitable. When you are being self-critical ask yourself if you would tell your friend the same thing if they did what you did or if they were feeling what you are feeling. Often, the answer to that question is no. We would not critique others as we critique ourselves.


2) The second is a sense of common humanity versus isolation. This means you need to understand that you are merely human and humans make mistakes. Humans struggle with physical health, trauma, mental health, relationship difficulties, parenting, grief, aging and crisis. Humans don't always get it right even when it looks like they do on social media. Humans struggle. And you are not more than human.


3) The last component is mindfulness versus over identification. This means noticing our negative thoughts and emotions with openness. Mindfulness in this way means taking a non judgmental stance on your thoughts and feelings as they are without trying to change them, suppress them or deny them. This mindfulness stance also means not over identifying with the feeling or thought so much that we end up being tangled up in it. It's taking a step back and being curious. This helps us be compassionate because we can't ignore or deny our feelings and be compassionate toward them at the same time.


So you see, self-compassion is in essence a reality check for those hard times. You get nothing from being overly self critical so why not try kindness. You are merely a human being having a human experience you are not meant to be perfect nor can you be so give yourself some understanding. And finally your thoughts and feelings are important, pay attention to the information they provide but don't get wrapped up in them. Self-compassion isn't just a trendy mental health trick to try if you have the time. Self-compassion is strongly associated with psychological well being and higher levels of self-compassion have been linked to optimism, increased feelings of happiness, and decreased anxiety, depression, fear of failure and rumination (Neff, 2009). Self-compassion is a core component of health and well being.


Try the above components out when that inner critic rears its ugly head. If you want some formal practices or exercises on self-compassion go to Dr. Neff's website at: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises


Finally, I will leave you with a quote that always hits me as an excellent example of why we need to practice self-compassion. "Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first, and the lesson after." - Oscar Wilde

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