Self-compassion is a straightforward concept — be nice to yourself. So, why is it so hard to grasp?
Being nice to others comes as a generally accepted given, despite varying definitions of “nice” across individuals. I think we can agree that people prefer when you are nice to them rather than rude. That idea doesn’t always translate directly to our relationships with ourselves. Love and kindness is not typically the first thing we give ourselves when we need encouragement.
Research supports the notion that we are more successful when we are compassionate to ourselves. However, do you ever find that you are more motivated when you are self-critical?
If you do, you’re not alone. There’s a dude named Zig Ziglar, who I only recently heard about. He’s super smart and has a bunch of good things to say about how to be successful. He’s a motivational speaker and he’s written a shit ton of books. Pretty credible dude, I really like his emphasis on being authentic and kind to others. He also has a quote that I really disagree with and I’m going to talk about it for a second.
He says, “when you are tough on yourself, life is going to be infinitely easy for you.” A lot of people agree with this line of thinking. And honestly, that is totally cool with me if it works for you. I’m also just going to say that no current research supports this quote, and all of the current research discredits it. (Don’t worry, Zig Ziglar has a bunch of other good quotes)
People who don’t think self-compassion is going to help them frequently think that being kind to ourselves is “soft” or lazy. When I was a kid practicing soccer, I used to tell my brother to tell me that I was really terrible at it. I thought that would help me get better. This method certainly wasn’t working with school, but perhaps it would with soccer. It didn’t. I don’t think that was entirely the fault of my negative self-talk (my feet have always been too big for me), but the negative self-talk certainly didn’t help.
In fact, negative self-talk never helped me. I’ve never achieved something amazing by treating myself as though I were my own shitty boyfriend. Absolutely, on the road to really cool things I have doubted myself the entire ride. The difference today is that I don’t get swept away in the whirl of negative thinking as quickly. And as soon as I say something shitty to myself, I usually say, “hey, you’re a bad bitch, let’s keep going.”
I learned self-compassion from a bunch of therapists, and I believed them because they had a lot of experience. They cited some very cool people who I ended up really liking.
One of those people is a badass warrior princess named Dr. Kristin Neff (self-compassion.org). She actually teaches at The University of Texas and I sometimes (every time I got to HEB) imagine running into her at the grocery store and then becoming her apprentice. A girl can dream.
Anyway, Dr. Kristin Neff pioneered self-compassion research. She is the reason I know what self-compassion is. The big term used to be “self-esteem,” but the keyword became “self-compassion” after self-esteem proved to be not super sustainable over time.
I’ll tell you why self-compassion is sustainable and why self-esteem isn’t. Self-compassion is basically like, “hey girl, you’re average, you are not better or worse than anyone, and that is fucking awesome.” Self-esteem is more like, “wow, you really have something especially special that no one else has.”
Self-esteem doesn’t last because as soon as you actually aren’t especially special at something, your self-esteem may drop. Self-esteem has requirements. Self-esteem compares us to others. One of the consequences of an emphasis on self-esteem has been a huge increase in narcissism over the last decade.
Self-compassion is badass because it sees the goodness even when life is a shit storm. I was reading a blog post about self-esteem vs. self-compassion on Dr. Krstin Neff’s website and she defines self-compassion so clearly and beautifully. She says:
Self-compassion involves being kind to ourselves when life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we don’t like, rather than being cold or harshly self-critical. It recognizes that the human condition is imperfect, so that we feel connected to others when we fail or suffer rather than feeling separate or isolated. It also involves mindfulness — the recognition and non-judgmental acceptance of painful emotions as they arise in the present moment. Rather than suppressing our pain or else making it into an exaggerated personal soap opera, we see ourselves and our situation clearly.
The part of that quote that I absolutely love is the part where it talks about connection with others. Pema Chodron talks about this in her book, Start Where You Are. I recently felt like a total failure when I quit my last job. Ugh. It sucked. Even though it was my decision, and it was ultimately to improve my health, I still felt like a failure. I was so proud of that job. Anyway, when I was going through that process, I thought, “wow, I wonder how many millions of people have felt this way before. And now, because I am experiencing this too, I am connected with all of those people.”
Thinking about it that way helps me feel a lot better when I fuck something up because I remember that millions upon millions of people have all felt the exact same way. So, that can be pretty powerful. I’m not alone when I say something stupid or accidentally sound really harsh in an email reply to someone who used a smiley face. I use smiley faces sometimes, too! I was just in rush!
I really want to talk about mindfulness and radical acceptance, but those will have to be separate blog posts. Both are involved in self-compassion practice.
Begin your self-compassion practice slowly and grow it over time. It can be difficult to change a habit that is so engrained in us. It’s engrained in our culture. It’s hard to escape that grip. And, it can be uncomfortable to tell people we love ourselves.
So, you don’t have to fall in love with yourself all at once. I didn’t start loving myself until I kept up little self-compassion breaks over time. I started practicing self-compassion when one of my therapists asked me to say “I love you” while making eye contact with myself in the mirror. Everyday for 30 days. And I totally did it.
Ugh. I still remmeber the first time I did it. I was nauseous. At the time, I’d had a recent suicide attempt. There wasn’t a ton I loved about myself. And I’d never told myself I loved me… because that’s a super weird thing to do. I said “I love you” to myself for the first time in June of 2012, and I have said it almost everyday since.
I’ve implemented a lot of self-compassion practices in my daily life. I take self-compassion breaks and write myself nice notes. Really simple things. Things that sometimes feel embarrassing and weird because it feels so counterintuitive at first.
You can do your own research and start your self-compassion adventure however you want. I used to teach some self-compassion workshops, and based on what I’ve learned from Dr. Kristin Neff, the best way to start being self-compassionate is to notice when you’re not.
Sometimes we say rude stuff to ourselves and we don’t even notice. You can start your self-compassion practice by simply observing and noticing when you are self-critical. What are the common phrases you say to yourself? Does this habit really help you?
You can start with that and move from there if you find that you do want to try something new. If you’re curious about this topic and you want to read some more in-depth research, check this out.