I know when I hear the term self compassion I have flashbacks to SNL’s Stuart Smalley facing himself in the mirror saying himself “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggonit, people like me!” but this is a simplistic view and really just captures a fear that being nice to ourselves is pathetic and sad. However I recently heard a metaphor that I think captures why self compassion is an essential trait for overall well-being. A friend told me a metaphor I thought was so apt. In the US, we have a culture of debt and spend money we do not have and likewise we care for people with resources from an inner well that we haven’t replenished. We are burned out but feel we must muster up compassion for others or risk being a bad and selfish person. But like financial debt, there are consequences. Not taking care of ourselves but caring for others actually creates burnout, fatigue and resentment. I was already familiar with Kristin Neff’s work on self compassion but I recently attended a course on self-compassion at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) and it helped me recapture some important takeaways.
We All Have an Inner Critic
We all have a voice that beats us up when we make a mistake, tells us how unlikely we are to succeed and constantly compares us to others. This is an evolutionary trait, not a symptom of a psychological illness. Often when people come to see me and say “I always beat myself up and I know I need to stop and be better”, they say it in a way that implies they want to join to special group of people who have overcome their inner critic and only have loving encouraging thoughts. Unfortunately, it’s not the reality. Even those people who have developed self compassion still have an inner critic, they have just developed a strong counter to their critic, the compassionate voice. So to be clear, to be human is to have an inner critic and self compassion can help reduce suffering.
Increasing Self Compassion does NOT Mean Reduced Productivity
One of the first objections to challenging the inner critic is usually “but if I didn’t talk to myself this way and accept myself as a I am, I will become lazy”. This is not really the case but it’s easy to see why it feels like it might be. To understand this concept, it may be helpful to think about someone you love instead of yourself. Think of someone you love and imagine you want them to take out the trash. If you followed them around telling them how stupid/lazy/inconsiderate they are for not doing it, they might actually take out the trash just to stop the criticism, but the relationship would be damaged as well. We do take action just to stop internal or external criticism, but usually at a high price. Now imagine your idea of a happy and loved person. Are they usually so content with their situation that they sit on a couch all day binge watching TV? Is that really your picture of a fulfilled person? People who are satisfied, loved and fulfilled usually lead very productive lives because they can move on from a mistake or misstep. Remember, they have an inner critic too because they are human, but when you speak to yourself compassionately, it actually helps you keep going rather than stay stagnant.
It’s not Pollyanna
Self-compassion is not sticking a smiley face on difficult emotions nor is it finding the silver lining. Self compassion is actually about being direct with your negative emotions instead of avoiding them. Self compassion is going towards those critical, doubtful, shameful feelings and observing them with curiosity and we can only do that from a mindfully aware space. Often when we mindfully observe feelings, they shift in some way, but it is different for everyone so it is important to reduce expectations and be open to seeing what happens. Meditation often feels syrup-y to people because often you are guided into meditation by a slow, soothing voice telling you to “juuust breeeathe”, however, that is the tone our bodies and brains respond to. If we told ourselves sternly “Come On! Just Breathe! Let’s Go! Chop Chop!” our bodies would tense more. We can care for ourselves without being cheesy, naïve or phony if we can suspend judgement and tune in to what we want and need.
We Are Taught To Put Ourselves Second
We offer support to others when we barely can support ourselves because we feel it is the generous thing to do, which is very culturally rewarded. For instance, have you ever seen the segment Ambush Makeover on the Today show? If you haven’t, it’s exactly what it sounds like, they find women in their audience and give them makeovers. Don’t judge me but I went through a bit of a phase on watching these makeovers on Youtube (because you click on one and then it’s off to the races), anyways I started to notice something as I watched. Before they give them the makeover they always ask the friend or family member who brought them to the show “Why does [so and so] deserve a makeover?” and inevitably the loved one responds “Because she is always doing so much for everyone else and never takes time for herself” and the host invariably smiles with delight as this is, of course, the correct answer and says “I love that! We’re going to take good care of her” and whisks her away for her new look. As I said, I bought this whole narrative for a few days when I was in the Youtube rabbit hole. I thought to myself how nice it was that she was getting this special treat. But then I started to see a pattern. A long worn narrative, especially for women, that you better spend your whole life putting yourself second and maybe one day you will be lucky enough to be recognized and rewarded for it with a three hour makeover and a hug from Hoda Kotb. Our lives can be more than this, and it may sound counter-intuitive but when we focus on ourselves, we aren’t deserting others, we can actually serve them so much better.
How Do I Do Self Compassion?
Compassion means “to suffer together” so Kristen Neff has defined self compassion as extending compassion to yourself when you are in suffering. So, if you are twenty minutes late to a meeting, instead of heading into your normal shame spiral, you speak to yourself differently. You find the humanity in the situation (most people are late at times in their life) and you recognize the suffering (the feeling of humiliation is so painful when you walk into a room and see everyone has been waiting and acknowledging how hard it is to feel that way). It is a practice of repeatedly changing the dialogue we have with ourselves. In a way it takes a moment and a lifetime but to relieve ourselves of any suffering in this life can feel exponentially helpful.