You pride yourself on being a really nice, kind person, right? You strive to treat others well–from your children to the overworked store clerk. You feel guilty if you snap at a loved one or overreact with the slightest harrumph after waiting unattended in the doctor’s office as the minutes tick to hours. Yet, in your own mind, you verbally assault yourself for perceived errors and experienced feelings, easily hurling aspersions of “stupid,” “weak,” “lazy.” Simply fill-in-the-blank with your favorite personal insults. Or maybe you deny your own needs, pushing yourself to the brink doing for others while neglecting your own sleep, exercise, nutrition, or fun.
Where’s your self-compassion? Your ability to treat yourself as well as you hope to treat others? Self-compassion is the new hot topic in wellness and happiness. Psychological research is building the case that self-compassion is the most important life skill. Children who learn to treat themselves kindly, withholding harsh judgments of self, become more resilient, brave, creative, and energetic than kids who learn to chastise themselves. If you’re a parent, chances are you agree that you want to teach your child(ren) to talk kindly towards self–even while you continue your internal self-bashing.
Kristen Neff, professor at University of Texas at Austin, is leading the charge against this current trend of beating ourselves up as a form of motivation, in our relentless pursuit to achieve. She found that being self-critical was perceived as a way to keep one’s self in line, supposedly protecting ourselves from sloth or failure. It backfires, leaving us depressed, discouraged, or anxious. Why wouldn’t this be true? We avoid chastising children in this negative way that we adopt so lightly in our own heads for just this reason. We accept that if we verbally berate others, they will feel badly.
But we can’t seem to adopt the same grace toward our own human failings. We have tempers. We make mistakes. We hate. We open our mouths at times when we’re tired, hungry, cranky, and $%*#!! escapes that we’d rather censor. Purposely and mindfully cutting yourself some slack is one place to start. Forgive yourself for being a regular imperfect person with powerful feelings. Talk as nicely to yourself as you would to a loved one or friend. You know how to do it–just aim it at yourself, rather than reserving the kindness for others. Accept your emotions, insecurities, and overreactions, withholding judgment.
Self-compassion is not all about words, though. It’s also about self-care: resting when you are tired, knowing when you need a break, asking for help, having a good cry, or scheduling in some fun. Grace toward yourself can be in the form of a massage or a night off, too.
To quote Judith Orloff, MD, on self-compassion: “we make progress when we beat ourselves up a little bit less each day.” It’s just baby steps: being honest about and accepting our human feelings and mistakes while avoiding the leap into overreaction and self-judgment.
Like quizzes? Here’s one on self-compassion developed by Kristin Neff. And the New York Times offers some of Neff’s tips for implementing self-compassion here.