Why is self compassion important?
Instead of being hard on yourself and being critical of your mistakes or failings, learning self-compassion will allow you to be kind, forgiving and sympathetic towards yourself when you do fall short.
There is no such thing as ‘perfect’ (we are all fabulously flawed human beings) and self-compassion is about acknowledging that and allowing ourselves to be what we are – human. When a friend tells you they’ve done something wrong or stupid, you don’t say, ‘You’re so stupid!’ How could you have done that? What were you thinking?’ Instead, you feel empathy for them and their suffering (the word compassion literally means ‘to suffer together’).
Rather than judging or criticizing their actions, you offer kindness and understanding, ‘Yes, maybe that wasn’t the best thing to do, but next time you’ll do it better. You are not the first person to have made a mistake – you’re only human!’ Self-compassion involves doing the same for ourselves as we would for others: noticing that we are suffering; feeling kindness and caring towards ourselves; and realizing that we are only human too.
When I first introduce this concept to my high-achieving, outwardly successful clients, many are resistant to it – believing it to be self-pitying rubbish that will prevent them from achieving what they want in life. They fully believe that self-criticism is essential to keep them motivated, creating the next big thing and smashing through the next barrier.
They are afraid that if they let go of all their self-criticism, they will no longer be motivated to be successful in life. One client recently said: ‘Yes, but if I did that – if I was ‘kind’ to myself(and they literally said this with a sneer, like it was the dirty word) – instead of driving myself harder and harder, I would just stop, give up and end up in a dead-end job. I would give up on everything, I would end up going nowhere!’
This isn’t being self-compassionate, it is being self-pitying and self-sabotaging – the sort of behaviour that makes us feel worse about ourselves rather than better, and less able to move forward and change things. In contrast, being self-compassionate is about doing what’s best for your health and happiness – not only at this moment but also in the long run.
In fact, far from being demotivating, self-compassion is more motivating than self-criticism. When you show yourself compassion, forgiveness and kindness, you become more responsible for your actions, not less. Several studies have shown that the more self-compassionate we are, the more able we are to achieve our goals, the more resilient we are in times of stress, that we are less reactive and angry, and that we enjoy life more as we do achieve.
As I say to my clients, self-compassion gives you the ability to love the life you have, while you create the life of your dreams. Studies have also shown that practising self-compassion can actually alter our nervous system and body chemistry – from being anxious and hyper-vigilant to danger, to being calmer and more contented. Conversely, they have also shown that the more self-critical we are, the less likely we are to achieve our goals.
To sum up, when you are self-compassionate, you become able to make the changes in your life that are the best for you. You start to honour and celebrate who you are as a human being; you are more forgiving of yourself; and more able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and carry on regardless – in spite of any mistakes or failures along the way. You will be more able to feel and believe that you are ‘good enough’ and that there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ – you are just human, and a work-in-progress like the rest of us.
‘We are not the survival of the fittest, we are the survival of the nurtured.’
The problem with being hard on yourself is it becomes ingrained and automatic that most of the time you will barely notice it is happening. So, the first thing you need to do is start catching yourself when you do it. Take some time to think about how you can build self-compassion.
- Notice and record – A good place to start is to take an inventory of the most common things you say to yourself. For example, ‘You should have worked harder on that’, ‘Why didn’t you know that?’ The list is endless but when you start to record these instances, you will notice a theme or a number of regular self-judgements.
- What’s the kindest thing you can say to yourself? – Start replacing each criticism with a dose of motivating self-compassion – something you would say to a close friend. Phrases such as: ‘That was a really tough situation, you did do your best with what you had/knew at the time.’ ‘Okay, I may not have done great there, but what’s the learning for next time?’ ‘I love and accept myself exactly as I am.’ ‘I am just human and a work in progress like everyone else.’Or my favourite: ‘What’s the kindest thing I can do for myself/say to myself at this moment?’
- Comfort yourself – When we are hard on ourselves we go into a flight-flight-freeze response – we will be feeling anxious because of the stress hormone cortisol that is pumping through our body. A great way to come out of that negative, judging place (and into a kinder, more motivating one) is to physically comfort yourself. I learned this technique from the queen of self-compassion Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion. She says that by doing something she calls a Hugging Practice, we literally self-soothe our way out of the flight-flight-freeze response, and all of the self-judgement that brings. Hugging releases oxytocin in the brain, which immediately reduces stress levels and makes us feel calm, content, trusting and secure.
The next time this happens, give yourself a hug. If there are people around, or you are in a meeting, you can wrap your arms around one another in a way that is not too obvious, and give yourself a squeeze. And if even that is not possible, you can imagine hugging yourself, and this will also give that immediate calming effect.
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