According to professor and researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion entails “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.” Why is this so difficult to do for ourselves, and so much easier to direct towards others? When we are struggling, our self-talk often involves a stream of invectives and criticisms we would never think of saying aloud to friends or family members that we care about. What makes it acceptable to treat ourselves to a discouraging diatribe in a situation where we would naturally provide support and encouragement to another? Why do we hold ourselves to perfectionistic standards and impossible rules that we clearly see are not realistic for other people to adhere to?
Many factors can contribute to our tendency towards self-condemnation while holding a more generous perspective for others, including personality, upbringing, life experiences, and relational wounds. Instead of motivating us to perform better however, self-criticism leads to depression, anxiety, avoidance, and poor performance. Studies show that learning to practice self-compassion actually leads to better mental and emotional health as well as improved performance on tasks.
Self compassion is not to be confused with self-pity. Feeling sorry for oneself leads to a victim mentality that causes one to feel increasingly hopeless and helpless. Self-compassion, on the other hand, acknowledges how hard a particular situation is without abdicating responsibility or efficacy to handle it in a productive way. Self-compassion says, “this is a difficult thing to deal with.” Taking a moment to acknowledge the degree of difficulty of what one is facing validates all of the feelings that come with that situation and confirms that is o.k. to feel this way, that one is not over-reacting or being weak. At the same time, self-compassion says, “I’m on your side. You can do this.” Self-compassion is a validating and empowering stance that allows you to access self-soothing and calming resources that are not available when we are heaping criticism on ourselves and thereby pushing us deeper into the brainstem, or survival mode.
The next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious, try coming alongside yourself in a be-friending and supportive way. Practice acknowledging that “this is hard for you,” not because you are an idiot and weakling, but because sometimes life is just really challenging and all that means about you is that you are human. Feel the comfort that comes from being on your own team instead of just on everyone else’s team. Say to yourself what you would say to a friend in this situation: “You are worthy of care and love. You are going to be o.k. You can get through this.” Take a deep breath and acknowledge the shared humanity that binds us!