What Is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is the ability to look at your own physical and emotional distress, realizing that you are experiencing some form of human suffering, and asking yourself “What do I need in this moment to make my suffering less?”. It is the realization that all suffering will pass, that suffering is a global human experience, and that you have the ability to move your life onto a healthy and happy journey.
If it was that easy, we would all be very self-compassionate. One of the pitfalls we allow ourselves to fall into, is to mistake self-compassion for inner experiences such as self-criticism and self-pity. We tend to hold ourselves up to very high standards, perfectionism if you will. This may be cultural, taught in childhood, or brought about by social norms. As people, we like to have an explanation for everything. It creates the illusion of control. Self-compassion teaches us that not everything is within our control, and that is ok.
Here are some examples of what we often mistake for self-compassion.
There are two different kinds of self-criticism: the positive kind, just like positive self-feedback. And the negative kind, the one I am referring to. The mean, harsh, and unnecessary self-talk such as “I’m no good” and “I’m a failure”. We feel that punitive self-criticism is somehow needed for motivation, that it will allow us to do better, to strive for perfection (there is that word again).
“I am such a loser, why can’t I get this right?” How are those thoughts working out for you?
Self-criticism is based on fear “I am not OK if I fail, so I must succeed”. This way of thinking can lead to depressive thoughts, losing faith in yourself and creating a fear of failure. It’s like the picture of a carrot and a stick. I want to get that carrot, but I’m afraid how much the stick will hurt me if I fail.
In the words of the English poet Alexander Pope “To err is human”.
Self-compassion is to motivate yourself, by realizing you are human and can make mistakes. It means to ask yourself what you need to encourage yourself.
Again, this leads to creating a false sense of control, wanting to be perfect. If I can’t improve myself, if I can’t be prettier, or run faster, or write better blog posts, it means that I have failed. Therefor I’m a failure, so why even bother?
In the words of American Psychologist Carl Rogers “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change”.
Self-compassion is about self-acceptance, to see yourself clearly, accepting your flaws, and working with what is within your control.
It is not a way of telling yourself “Poor me”, rather a sense of “This experience would be hard for anyone”. Self-pity emphasizes ego-centric thoughts and feelings, creating a notion that you are alone in the world. That no-one has ever experienced a similar event. This creates a false sense of self-soothing, feeling better in the short term but feeling guilty and ashamed in the long term. Self-compassion is allowing yourself to see yourself and the world around you clearly, to be vulnerable and to take responsibility for your mistakes. Followed by the question “What would I need to make this suffering less?”.
This allows for avoidance of painful feelings and emotions, while indulging yourself in some form of short term emotional release. Have you ever thought “I had a rough day, I’m going to sit on the couch, with a tub of ice cream, and watch movies for the rest of the day”?
Self-compassion is not allowing yourself to do whatever you want to do. It is realizing that sometimes you need to do things you don’t feel like doing, because you realize that it will be beneficial to you later on. It means to realize what you need in the moment to make yourself feel better about you in the long run.
Feeling good about yourself and your achievements, meaning that (again) if you have not succeeded and have not reached perfection, you failed. Self-esteem has long been a measure of our mental well-being. If you feel good about yourself, you must be in a good head space. But, if you’re not feeling good about yourself, [enter the self-criticizing thoughts]. In our North American society, it is not ok to be average. Imagine receiving an average grade on a test, or an average review on your work performance, or being described as average by your friends. Of course, this would want us to reach perfection, otherwise we’re not good enough.
Self-compassion is being true to yourself, realizing that sometimes we will not succeed at something. But that is a human experience, and it’s ok to not always succeed. What do I need to not make the same mistakes next time?