What if I told you that you could reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, make better lifestyle choices, increase motivation and improve interpersonal relationships all with one activity? Sounds like a seedy infomercial, right? Well, research strongly supports that we could all increase our mental health just by practicing more self-compassion.
Think about a specific time that you failed at a task or made a mistake. What did you do? For many, especially those with mental health concerns, we begin an internal dialogue of self-criticism. “If only I had done this better, then I would have been successful.” or “I can’t believe I did that! I am so careless! I’ll never amount to anything.”. Now imagine repeating these words aloud to a child, close friend or a co-worker after having made a similar mistake. Most of us would never! So, then why is it acceptable for us to chant this mantra of shame to ourselves?
High levels of performance are held at great value in modern society. Throughout our development, we are put under extraordinary pressures to be exceptional and successful – better than the rest. In childhood, we are rewarded with stars, high marks and praise from loved-ones after an accomplishment. In adulthood, this same concept translates into receiving a promotion, closing a deal, being well-liked or having luxury items. We continuously receive affirming messages that our self-worth is based off of our successes. Eventually, we internalize these societal messages to become the understanding we have of ourselves. “If I can accomplish this goal, then I will be successful and, therefore, happy.” The ever-looming question is then, what happens when we fail?
Psychological research has generally surrounded that self-esteem – the positive or negative judgment that one holds of oneself – is the key to resilience. Having high self-esteem has been related to reduced anxiety, depression and higher levels of life satisfaction. However, self-esteem is circumstantial because it is reliant upon our perception of whether or not we have been successful in some way. If we perceive that we did well at something, we can receive all the benefits high self-esteem has to offer. If we perceive we have failed at something, our self-concept is threatened and self-esteem plummets. Our critical voice then punishingly chimes in, in attempt to motivate us back toward success. Unfortunately, this self-inflicted emotional pain accomplishes the opposite of its intention and actually increases stress, decreases motivation and can evoke feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is the act of relating to oneself with acceptance, kindness and empathy. It is learning that you are enough and to love yourself as a significant, whole, imperfect, milk-spilling human. Self-compassion provides that becoming successful comes second to providing ourselves thoughtful care. “If I cherish myself, I can be happy, then I can accomplish my goal and be successful”. This way of thinking naturally allows for more emotional stability because it is not reliant upon proficiency.
Self-compassion expert Kristin Neff defines self-compassion with three components.
1. Treating oneself with understanding
2. Becoming part of common humanity- recognizing we are not alone in our suffering
3. Practicing mindfulness- becoming presently aware of and accepting of the self with a non-judgmental attitude. Relating to ourselves this way allows us to improve overall mental health, feel confident and find resilience in all circumstances, even failures. It also allows us to extend our compassion to others more readily.
So, this idea all sounds wonderful in theory. How does one actually practice the act of self-compassion?
Identify the negative internal dialogue that you are having with yourself. Take time to become mindful of negative self-talk and listen to the message it is sending. We so often allow our minds to run on autopilot that we fail to recognize we are harming ourselves on a deep emotional level. Through recognizing our cognitive patterns without judgment we can begin to empower ourselves towards positive change.
Find empathy for both the critical part of you that wants to protect and the criticized part of you that feels pain, because both are in distress. Neff describes becoming a “compassionate observer” and advises you to speak to yourself the way you would a good friend. Focus on the positives, remind yourself of what is going well and use self-affirming language to name your strengths.
Know that you are not alone in your experience and that all people encounter fear and sadness when faced with a struggle. Rather than labeling yourself as a problem and isolating yourself from others, appreciate that we share universal emotions. Allowing room for error is what makes us uniquely human. Failure and mistakes are what have always evoked innovation, creativity and advancement.
Remember to take time for yourself. Many of our lives are filled with meeting the expectations of others at work and at home that we forget about our own needs. Take a walk, read a book, write in your journal and use those vacation days!
Forgive you. Be kind to you. Love you.
Find Neff’s self-compassion exercises here