Self-Compassion is not Self-Indulgence

April 10, 2021

I’ll never forget the time I overheard one of my high-school classmates repeatedly calling herself stupid in front of the bathroom mirror. When I recognised her voice, chills ran down my spine. I’d always thought of her as one of the kindest people in the whole school. I was shocked to hear how cruel she was to herself when she thought she was on her own.

From a young age, we learn how to be a good friend to others. In kindergarten or nursery school, we’re taught how to share, cooperate and play. Any child who calls other kids dumb, losers or ‘fart face’ is swiftly scolded or given a time out. All in all, we grow up learning to follow the golden rule: ‘Treat others how you want to be treated.’

Yet many of us receive no guidance on how to be a friend to ourselves. In fact, we might even get counterproductive messaging about what it means to treat ourselves with kindness. We might come to believe that being kind towards ourselves is self-indulgent, lazy or weak.

As a clinical psychologist in training, I’ve discovered such self-beratement is commonplace. For example, people often judge their bodies, work performance or parenting abilities by standards to which they’d never hold others. Many people call themselves names they’d never dare utter to friends or family members, or even to people they dislike.

It’s little surprise that the psychological concept of ‘self-compassion’ is cloaked in controversy. At its core, self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness and consideration with which you’d treat a loved one. Just as compassion begins by recognising another’s pain, self-compassion begins by recognising when you, yourself, are suffering. A self-compassionate response, according to a leading self-compassion researcher, Kirstin Neff at the University of Texas, entails three critical ingredients:

1self-kindness: offering yourself warmth and understanding rather than self-judgment;

2common humanity: remembering that all human beings make mistakes and experience pain, rather than feeling isolated in your suffering; and

3mindfulness: observing your thoughts and emotions in a balanced way, without becoming consumed by them.

I’ve found that the idea of self-compassion elicits reactions ranging from an enthusiastic ‘Sign me up!’ to suspicion or even fear. Upon the mere mention of self-compassion, a host of thoughts can bubble up:

‘Self-compassion is just not for me.’ ‘Aren’t people too soft on themselves these days?’ ‘I need self-criticism to motivate me to achieve my goals.’ Or, ‘If I’m self-compassionate, won’t I just sit on the couch and eat Ben and Jerry’s all day?’

Without the heavy baggage of self-criticism and shame, it’s easier for self-compassionate people to grow, improve and move forward

These beliefs have consequences, including affecting how people respond to life’s challenges. For instance, in one study, my colleagues Patricia Chen, Jamil Zaki and I looked into the coping strategies used by people who were disappointed and upset following the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election.

Those who viewed self-compassion positively were more likely than others to draw upon self-compassion in a beneficial way to help them get through the difficult times – for instance, they reported using more active strategies to manage their emotions, such as seeking support from others, and relied less upon unhelpful strategies, such as distraction or self-blame. This not only helped them feel better, it worked better too – our participants who practised more self-compassion reported having more intentions to improve themselves and the situation, such as by committing to become more politically active.

Our work echoes what research finds time and time again – self-compassion is a healthy response to suffering. It is critical not only to our wellbeing but also helps us rise to challenges.

For example, other researchers have found that self-compassion helps people take personal responsibility for transgressions and persist following obstacles, such as a disappointing test grade. Contrary to assumptions that self-compassion is selfish, self-compassion even helps us to be kinder towards others. All of this might sound counterintuitive: how can something as unassuming as self-compassion help us become better, more resilient versions of ourselves?

An interesting thing happens when we’re self-compassionate – it becomes safe for us to admit our missteps to ourselves. Think about it this way: would you rather share an embarrassing mistake with someone with a track record of responding kindly – or with someone who might fly off the handle with harsh criticism?

In this way, when mistakes or perceived failures arise, self-compassionate people are able to recognise them for what they are: normal human happenings. Then, without the heavy baggage of self-criticism and shame, it’s easier for self-compassionate people to grow, improve and move forward bravely.

In her popular TEDx talk from 2013, Neff offered a helpful analogy for understanding why self-compassion works so well. Imagine that a child returned home from school upset, having received a failing grade in mathematics. A parent could respond with harsh criticism, expressing disappointment, anger or even shame.

They could yell and question the intellect of the child. For a short while, the child might study harder. But over time, the child could become depressed and quit mathematics altogether, as the consequences of failing again are too high.

Alternatively, a parent could respond to the child with compassion, recognising and validating the child’s feelings of disappointment (eg, ‘I can tell how upset you are. That sounds really tough’), reminding them that everyone struggles occasionally, and helping them maintain a balanced perspective (eg, ‘There are still more quizzes ahead of you. Let’s figure out together how we can help you feel prepared and ready for the next one’).

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