How can I be Self Compassionate?
The word compassion is one that everyone has heard of, the dictionary definition is to show sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.
The reason we show compassion is to alleviate the suffering of someone, showing consideration because their distress, pain or upset matters to us. Consciously this is only an exercise we perform on others, never to ourselves, so self compassion is practically unheard of.
If you work in the emergency services, one of the first and most important rules is to ensure your own well being, because you are responding to someones need for help. Essentially if you come to harm, how can you ever hope to help anyone else?
That reference is more to physical harm, yet everyday we encounter varying degrees of mental harm, consciously or subconsciously and we take no action. Should someone else become upset it’s a very different story, “What’s wrong?”, “Are you okay?” or “Do you want to talk about it?”, we’re the first to ask.
Isn’t it hypocritical that we care so much about the feelings of others but don’t extend the same courtesy to ourselves? We’re always the one that runs to the rescue of others… but who want’s to be helped by you when you don’t even know how to help yourself?
There’s a sense of irony in that isn’t there? I mean, would you want to overcome the task of rock climbing if you were being taught by someone who only ever fell off the wall? Of course not and yet life is a challenge much the same as rock climbing. Perhaps that’s why it’s referred to as an uphill struggle.
We express compassion towards other people when we can visibly or audibly identify distress, upset, depression or pain.
You don’t need those key indicators when identifying your own suffering though, you’re the best person to know when something’s wrong with you and you’re also the best person to help.
To some people the idea that you can help yourself is unheard of. Sure, it might be a daunting task… I mean look at how much you have on your plate, right? …can I ask why do you do that to yourself? I mean why do you build up things to be more difficult than they are?
I’ll tell you why, it’s your perception of life. You see life and its challenges as an uphill struggle when really each challenge is a single step and life is a stairway.
Self esteem is overrated
Self compassion is comparative to self esteem, however, it’s much more effective because self esteem is an evaluation of self worth. It’s like casting a judgement on yourself, linking to your identity of how others see you, am I a good person, or a bad person?
Self esteem is not the ultimate marker of psychological health, despite popular belief. That’s to say that if you have low self esteem, you’re more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, more likely to self harm or take your own life.
High self esteem is not the opposite of that and it’s not so much if you have high self esteem, but how you acquire it. To many of us, what it means to have high self esteem is to feel special or to be above average. Because to be told that your work performance was average, the Sunday dinner you spent hours making, was average, you’d feel upset by that, honestly. It’s considered an insult to be average.
The problem with us all being above average… well, if we were all above average, it ups the average. So in our general assessment of ourselves, we might put others down or become overly critical of others in order to up our self esteem and to feel better about ourselves in comparison, our over average worth is safe because they’re not considered above average in your mind. It’s a pretty poisonous way to think.
Studies have actually shown that people are generally more narcissistic than they’ve ever been because of the self esteem movement. If that’s your thing then that’s cool too but what stems from that is ugly social dynamics:
- The need to feel better than others in order to feel good about ourselves.
- Bullying, behaviour that manifests itself as we strive to feel better about ourselves.
- Prejudism, the feeling that one religion, ethnic group or political party is better than another group.
Self esteem is contingent on success, also. We only feel fulfilled when we succeed, someone with high self esteem will feel upset by failure, it’s harder for them to accept.
How attractive we feel is something which is important to many of us. It’s hugely responsible for being the reason we might have high or low self esteem.
So how do we break away from the self esteem cycle? The answer is self compassion. Self compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, it’s a way of relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves the way we are, this includes all our flaws.
How can I be self compassionate
There are three core components to self compassion.
Treating ourselves with kindness rather than harsh self judgement. Treating ourselves like we would treat a good friend, with encouragement, understanding, empathy, patience and gentleness.
If you were to focus on the way we would normally treat ourselves, especially when we have a bad day and things aren’t going so well, we’re often more harsh and more cruel to ourselves at the most difficult of times. We use much harsher language when relating to ourselves, things we would never dream of saying to someone we cared about if they were feeling that way. Things we might not say to someone we didn’t care too much about too. We’re our own worst enemy at times.
With self compassion we reverse that negative behavior and we begin to treat ourselves the way we would treat our good friends.
Where self esteem asks ‘How am I different from others?’, Self compassion asks ‘How am I the same as others?’. Well, the fact we’re all human is our common identity, so by definition as humans we are imperfect. We are not perfect and our lives are not perfect, it’s a shared human experience of life and we are all fighting our own personal battles that others know nothing about, whatever the outward perception.
Irrationally, if we do not meet a challenge or we set ourselves a goal but don’t meet that goal, we reason with ourselves, ‘This is wrong’ we think, ‘I should be able to reach my goal’, then we feel an abnormality, something which differentiates us from others that’s really psychologically damaging. We make things worse by believing that we’re isolated in our suffering and our imperfection, when actually it’s exactly what connects us to everyone else.
In all likelihood, those around you fail in their goals often but you know nothing about it because people don’t write Facebook statuses about failure because they feel it’s humiliating or think that it makes them appear stupid.
Being with what is, in the present moment. This is being self aware of our state of mind. Accepting that we’re hurting or suffering. The reason for this is that for the most part we aren’t actually aware of our own suffering, especially when it stems from our own harsh criticisms, because we’ve always done that, it’s always been that way, that’s the way that we are.
If we do not acknowledge our own self criticism then we cannot treat ourselves with self compassion. It’s as if you’re suppressing yourself, the more you criticise yourself, the heavier this weight on your shoulders becomes and it’s keeping you down. With self compassion, you’ll begin to lift that weight, slowly but surely and in time you’ll be able to stand tall again.
Why do I criticise myself?
It’s understood that we believe that we need to be self critical in order to motivate ourselves and that if we are too kind to ourselves, we will be self indulgent and lazy. In fact the word ‘lazy’ is a great example of the way we speak to ourselves this way, “Ugh, I need to get up out of bed… stop being so lazy and get up!” perhaps it sounds familiar? 🙂
Self criticism is an attack on yourself. You are both the attacker and the victim. When attacked either verbally or physically, it’s a form of confrontation, we release adrenaline because our body goes into high alert and activates our fight or flight response. But remember we are also the attacker, when we attack our body releases adrenaline, ready for the confrontation, ready for the fight. The double release of adrenaline may give us a temporary buzz but actually it increases the amount of stress on the body, our body and mind then responds by shutting down, at which point we can enter periods of depression. A constant self critic then, would release a lot of cortisol and consequently would constantly be under high levels of stress, which I think you’ll agree is not healthy.
As Mammals, we are born in a very immature state, we have evolved in such a way that as infants we instinctively crave touch, warmth, soft vocalisations, the feelings of comfort and security. So when we give ourselves compassion, we release oxytocin which is a feel good hormone and it’s when we feel safe and comforted that we’re actually in the optimal mindset to do our best.
The best demonstration of this would be to read through this scenario:
Say your son or daughter comes home from school and they tell you that they performed badly in a maths test, your response is to say ‘You’re a loser’, ‘I’m ashamed of you’, ‘you’ll never amount to anything’, can you imagine saying that to them? You wouldn’t (maybe you have self esteem issues and are being overly critical to make yourself feel better remember? haha) . You’re happy to use that kind of tone when shaming yourself though and your own performance. So, if you were to speak to your child this way, they may receive it as discipline, being told off and perhaps they’ll try harder next time but the more likely outcome is that they’ll lose faith in themselves and in their ability, become depressed and become afraid of failure because the consequences of failing again are more than they can cope with.
So in this scenario, we will take a compassionate approach and see how this compares with the critical approach:
Say your son or daughter comes home from school and they tell you that they performed badly in a maths test, your response will be ‘Oh really? Well it’s just one test. I’d see this as an opportunity to spend a bit more time revising maths and if I can help in any way, let me know.’ Or ‘Ah I’m sorry to hear that but don’t let it knock your confidence, I know you’ll try harder next time and I’m proud of you for trying your best’, ‘What can I do to help?’, ‘What can I do to make things better?’. This compassionate behavior leaves the child in a better place emotionally to go on and do their best.
Self compassion is very strongly linked to mental well being, less depression, less anxiety, less stress and perfectionism. It’s equally strongly linked to positivity, happiness, greater motivation, self responsibility, making healthier lifestyle choices and it’s also linked to having better inter-personal relationships.
Self compassion has the benefits of self esteem without the negative aspects such as narcissism, constant social comparison, ego-defensive aggression, a stronger and more stable sense of self worth. So when self esteem leaves us feeling low, self compassion steps in and makes you feel good, not because you’ve reached some higher standard or perceive yourself to be better than somebody but because you know the value of self worth and you are worthy of love, given to you either by others and also by yourself.
Self compassion is not selfish and it’s not self indulgent. The more love and kindness we practice in offering compassion to ourselves, the more readily we will be to offer this to those around us and the stronger we will also be in order to be able to do so.
Thanks for reading How can I be Self Compassionate?
How about reading How to Steer Clear of Negative Influences?
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