Try Self-Compassion

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Written with Kristine S. MacKain, Ph.D

At times we can be so hard on ourselves!

Why can’t we give ourselves more slack? Think about it.

You set several goals for yourself: you are determined to complete five important tasks within a particular time period; you promise yourself to respond with more control when you child starts whining; you are determined to walk 15 miles this week.  And then what happens? You fall short of your expectations for yourself.  We don’t mean a stunning earth-shattering failure but you simply don’t reach your goals.

Then, you beat yourself up. Your thoughts take a self-accusatory turn:

  • “Why did I let myself become distracted when I wanted to finish those tasks by 5pm?”
  • “Why can’t I stop snapping at my child and be more understanding?”
  • “Why am I such a lazy slob—I’ll never lose weight!”

It’s stressful enough being so self-critical but there’s another problem with being this hard on ourselves: in doing so, we become completely caught up in our own drama, which unfortunately tends to bleed into other aspects of our lives, affecting the way we perceive others and the way we begin to view our lives, in general.

For instance, let’s say you are having a down moment because you haven’t reached those goals we were just talking about. You find yourself fixating on that and soon you are generalizing—all of your life looks bleak:

  • “My career is a dead-end.”
  • “I should have never had children.”
  • “I’m too old for exercise!”

Down the slippery slope you’ve gone. You have just blown that one incident into a personal catastrophe.

So, what happens when you consistently do this to yourself? Perhaps the answer is best captured by a quote we read recently: “People wrapped up in themselves make for a small and miserable package.”

Before we show you a way out of this downward spiral, let’s examine the root causes of this painful and, at times, disabling condition.

 Why do We Beat up on Ourselves?

Why do our perceived shortcomings lead to self-flagellation? Why do we catastrophize the minor peccadilloes in our lives? Why can’t we be more self-compassionate?  Below, are some explanations that may resonate with you:

  1. We set the bar unrealistically high for ourselves, sometimes to the point of perfectionism. Then, we don’t cut ourselves slack when we fall short of a perfect performance. The roots of this behavior often go back to childhood where we were shamed by parents who themselves experienced shame. We may have heard messages like: “You got 5 A’s and one B” – what happened?” Or, “If you continue doing that, you will never amount to anything”. Unfortunately, we still believe those messages, re-running the tapes in one heads when we fail to meet our objectives.
  2. We live in a culture where winning the silver, rather than the gold medal makes you a loser—where only the winner receives affirmation. We function under the myth that winners never fail and that failing is taboo.
  3. We fail to think rationally; we generalize that we are failures based on one incident of failure, instead of seeing failure as part of the learning and mastery process.
  4. We think that self-criticism helps keep us from becoming self-indulgent, according to recent research on self-compassion by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., from the University of Texas, Austin.

The Way Out: Give Yourself a Break with Self-Compassion

The healthier, more productive way of relating to ourselves when we fall short of our goals is to substitute self-compassion for self-judgment.

Let’s start first with compassion for others. When you have compassion for others, you notice their suffering, you care, you feel empathy for them. This leads to a desire to do something on their behalf to relieve their suffering and make life better for them. In self-compassion, you do the same for yourself.

How skilled at self-compassion are you? In her work on self-compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., has developed a free, web-based test for self-compassion that you can take to see where you fall on the self-compassion scale. (Also, read more on her website for additional information on what self-compassion is and is not):

If you score low on the self-compassion test and are inclined to self-hate and pity parties, here are some things you can do for yourself:

  1. See that the true value of your person lies in who you are, not what you do.
  2.  View failure as your “training wheels”—the way you reach success. Instead of thinking, “I was so bad at that!” ask yourself: “What can I learn from this experience that will help me succeed in the future?”
  3. Examine the logic of your self-loathing evaluation. For instance, you failed in one instance. Does that really mean that you will fail in every similar instance in the future?
  4.  Treat yourself the same way you would treat others with a similar shortfall, hopefully, with compassion. Recently, we heard someone remark: “If you treated others the same way you treat yourself for your own shortcomings, you wouldn’t have any friends!”
  5. Don’t try to deny or stamp out harsh self-judgment—suppression may only increases the intensity of the negative feeling. Instead, step outside yourself and observe and acknowledge the thought by saying “I’m judging myself again.” 
  6. Forgive yourself for harsh thinking. It helps here to see that what you think as unique to yourself is part of the general human condition.
  7. Replace your negative thought with a positive, reality- based evaluation like, “This was just one instance of a failing–it does not mean that I am always this way or that I cannot learn from this experience.”

Becoming more compassionate with oneself is a skill that can be learned. By integrating these seven new ways of thinking about yourself, you can learn to be a friend to yourself rather than your own worst enemy.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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