Self-compassion is one of those terms that has gained popularity of late but remains misunderstood by many. Self-compassion comes down to treating yourself as you would treat someone else you care about—with kindness, understanding, and the awareness that everyone is human, imperfect, but still inherently worthy.
Dr. Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin was the first person to operationalize, or create a way to define and measure, the idea of self-compassion. She and other researchers since have found three essential components to self-compassion. These are self-kindness, common humanity—which refers to understanding the things we criticize ourselves about are both universal and part of being human—and mindfulness.
Mindfulness, at its most basic level, refers to present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness. The practice of mindfulness has been linked to numerous mind-body benefits, including the ability to notice the thoughts and feelings that tend to cause us suffering—without holding them close, pushing them away, or automatically identifying with them.
Although many of us could identify people we believe would benefit from taking a closer and perhaps more constructively critical look at themselves, there is a large subgroup of people who tend to be overly self-critical. This can come in the form of unfair comparisons, such as, “I’ll never be as good as so-and-so,” to frequent catastrophizing (“I’ve really messed up, and now my life is ruined for good!”), to conditional self-worth (“I’ll be okay/worth something/lovable only when I am [insert criterion here]”).
Why We Self-Criticize
I’ve noticed a tendency toward chronic or constant self-criticism in those whose parents praised only exceptional behavior (leading to the belief, “If I’m not the best, I am the worst”), spent a lot of time fault-finding, or, in extreme cases, were abusive. If the inner stream of criticism sounds uncannily like the critical statements someone else used to tell you, take note. That’s useful information if you decide to pursue therapy.
Among the many downsides to constant self-criticism: it can leave one either overly vulnerable to feeling criticized—even in response to constructive feedback—and can also lead to projecting self-criticism onto others (and becoming hyper-critical in general). In addition, self-criticism erodes self-esteem and can leave one feeling depressed, anxious, or hopeless.
Why We Resist Self-Compassion
Often people resist the idea of self-compassion because they believe self-criticism is a necessary tool that protects them from “slacking off,” being a “bad” person, or otherwise becoming something they associate with personal failure (“fat,” “alone,” “lazy,” “unlovable,” etc.). People may also feel counter-identified with a parent or other family member who exhibited undesirable qualities, and thus, the self-critical voice may feel necessary to avoid winding up like that person. Similarly, they may worry that without being self-critical, they will fail to take responsibility for the things they do, and perhaps will lack compassion for others (because of the self-indulgence they associate with self-compassion).
The good news is the research on self-compassion has found that the practice is associated with being more compassionate with others, greater altruism, and greater likelihood to forgive others.
The good news is the research on self-compassion has found the practice is associated with being more compassionate with others, greater altruism, and greater likelihood to forgive others. In addition, self-compassion has been linked to being more likely to take responsibility for one’s own actions, greater happiness, increased motivation, and greater self-worth.
Some simple ways to enhance self-compassion include the following:
- Ask yourself, “Is the way I am thinking about myself the way I would respond to a close friend or other loved one?” If the answer is no, imagine how you would treat others who found themselves in a similar situation. What would you say? What recommendations would you make? How would you offer comfort? How would you help this person reframe their take on things?
- Write down the answers to the above questions. Now, viewing yourself from the perspective of the observer, speak to yourself in the same compassionate tone, using the language you would use with someone you care about.
- Remember you, like everyone else, are human. Humans are imperfect, yet born with inherent worth. Most of the things you have suffered over are universal in some way.
- Remind yourself of the truisms. Mistakes are one of the ways in which we learn. Challenges present opportunities to grow stronger. No one is perfect.
- Practice mindfulness daily. Set aside time for formal practice, such as breath awareness, and strive to be present for your life in general—however it is in this moment.
- Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1133-1143.
- Germer, G. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69, 856–867. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/germer.neff.pdf
- Neff, K. D., & Pommier, E. (2012). The Relationship between Self-compassion and Other-focused Concern among College Undergraduates, Community Adults, and Practicing Meditators. Self and Identity, 1-17 (iFirst article). Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/Neff.Pommier.pdf
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