Photo by Carolyn Drake/Magnum
Photo by Carolyn Drake/Magnum
I’ll never forget the time I overheard one of my high-school classmates repeatedly calling herself stupid in front of the bathroom mirror. When I recognised her voice, chills ran down my spine. I’d always thought of her as one of the kindest people in the whole school. I was shocked to hear how cruel she was to herself when she thought she was on her own.
From a young age, we learn how to be a good friend to others. In kindergarten or nursery school, we’re taught how to share, cooperate and play. Any child who calls other kids dumb, losers or ‘fart face’ is swiftly scolded or given a time out. All in all, we grow up learning to follow the golden rule: ‘Treat others how you want to be treated.’
Yet many of us receive no guidance on how to be a friend to ourselves. In fact, we might even get counterproductive messaging about what it means to treat ourselves with kindness. We might come to believe that being kind towards ourselves is self-indulgent, lazy or weak.
As a clinical psychologist in training, I’ve discovered such self-beratement is commonplace. For example, people often judge their bodies, work performance or parenting abilities by standards to which they’d never hold others. Many people call themselves names they’d never dare utter to friends or family members, or even to people they dislike.
It’s little surprise that the psychological concept of ‘self-compassion’ is cloaked in controversy. At its core, self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness and consideration with which you’d treat a loved one. Just as compassion begins by recognising another’s pain, self-compassion begins by recognising when you, yourself, are suffering. A self-compassionate response, according to a leading self-compassion researcher, Kirstin Neff at the University of Texas, entails three critical ingredients:
I’ve found that the idea of self-compassion elicits reactions ranging from an enthusiastic ‘Sign me up!’ to suspicion or even fear. Upon the mere mention of self-compassion, a host of thoughts can bubble up: ‘Self-compassion is just not for me.’ ‘Aren’t people too soft on themselves these days?’ ‘I need self-criticism to motivate me to achieve my goals.’ Or, ‘If I’m self-compassionate, won’t I just sit on the couch and eat Ben and Jerry’s all day?’
Without the heavy baggage of self-criticism and shame, it’s easier for self-compassionate people to grow, improve and move forward
These beliefs have consequences, including affecting how people respond to life’s challenges. For instance, in one study, my colleagues Patricia Chen, Jamil Zaki and I looked into the coping strategies used by people who were disappointed and upset following the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Those who viewed self-compassion positively were more likely than others to draw upon self-compassion in a beneficial way to help them get through the difficult times – for instance, they reported using more active strategies to manage their emotions, such as seeking support from others, and relied less upon unhelpful strategies, such as distraction or self-blame. This not only helped them feel better, it worked better too – our participants who practised more self-compassion reported having more intentions to improve themselves and the situation, such as by committing to become more politically active.
Our work echoes what research finds time and time again – self-compassion is a healthy response to suffering. It is critical not only to our wellbeing but also helps us rise to challenges. For example, other researchers have found that self-compassion helps people take personal responsibility for transgressions and persist following obstacles, such as a disappointing test grade. Contrary to assumptions that self-compassion is selfish, self-compassion even helps us to be kinder towards others. All of this might sound counterintuitive: how can something as unassuming as self-compassion help us become better, more resilient versions of ourselves?
An interesting thing happens when we’re self-compassionate – it becomes safe for us to admit our missteps to ourselves. Think about it this way: would you rather share an embarrassing mistake with someone with a track record of responding kindly – or with someone who might fly off the handle with harsh criticism?
In this way, when mistakes or perceived failures arise, self-compassionate people are able to recognise them for what they are: normal human happenings. Then, without the heavy baggage of self-criticism and shame, it’s easier for self-compassionate people to grow, improve and move forward bravely.
In her popular TEDx talk from 2013, Neff offered a helpful analogy for understanding why self-compassion works so well. Imagine that a child returned home from school upset, having received a failing grade in mathematics. A parent could respond with harsh criticism, expressing disappointment, anger or even shame. They could yell and question the intellect of the child. For a short while, the child might study harder. But over time, the child could become depressed and quit mathematics altogether, as the consequences of failing again are too high. Alternatively, a parent could respond to the child with compassion, recognising and validating the child’s feelings of disappointment (eg, ‘I can tell how upset you are. That sounds really tough’), reminding them that everyone struggles occasionally, and helping them maintain a balanced perspective (eg, ‘There are still more quizzes ahead of you. Let’s figure out together how we can help you feel prepared and ready for the next one’).
Notice that the compassionate response didn’t involve turning a blind eye to the test grade. Nor did it entail stroking the child’s ego. Instead, it involved creating a safe and nurturing environment, where mistakes are OK for the child to confront.
Put another way, your words of self-talk are the fuel: you can choose to fill your tank with either criticism or compassion. Both will get you moving, but the self-compassionate variety lasts longer and causes less harm to the engine in the end. When you’re kind towards yourself, you’ll find it easier to confront life’s many challenges, whether that be studying after receiving a failing test grade, apologising to someone after losing your cool, or returning to the gym even when you feel weak. Importantly, self-compassion enables us to confront these hurdles head-on, without becoming consumed by feelings of inadequacy.
Self-compassion is not an elusive trait that only some people can possess. There are concrete ways for us all to cultivate compassion, both for others and for ourselves. Researchers have created programmes (eg, the Mindful Self-Compassion programme), workbooks and resources to help people build greater self-compassion. We can train our self-compassion muscle in various ways, for example, through writing exercises (eg, writing a letter to oneself from the perspective of an unconditionally caring friend), imagery or meditations. These exercises train us to respond to our own pain or perceived inadequacies just like we’d respond to those of a friend – with encouragement and caring.
Self-compassion is about relating to yourself in a more constructive, nurturing way. It’s not about feeling good all the time
And yet, if you’re like most people, getting to the self-compassion gym is the hardest part. If you have doubts that the gym will bring any benefits, you’re unlikely to visit! Encouragingly, in our work, we found that just changing participants’ beliefs about the usefulness of self-compassion helped them cope better with challenges. When we told people that the research shows that self-compassion actually improves motivation rather than harming it, they were subsequently more likely to practise self-compassion during difficulties. This, in turn, helped them to cope better and seek self-improvement.
Our work thus underscores the importance of taking the time to understand and gently correct your assumptions about self-compassion. Doing so could help you respond more effectively to the inevitable bumps in the road ahead.
First, notice what beliefs you have about self-compassion. Ask yourself: what have other people told you, either through words or actions, about self-compassion? Did parental figures in your life practise compassion? If so, did they include themselves within their sphere of compassion? What do you believe would happen if you were self-compassionate? What do you think would happen if you let go of harsh self-criticism?
Next, notice how you talk to yourself. If you’re like most people, your mind is filled with a steady stream of chatter and yet, just like when you mindlessly consume popcorn during a movie without noticing its texture or flavour, you might not pause to reflect on your self-talk. Does it tend to be negative? Do you hold yourself to impossible standards? You’ll be spending the rest of your life with this voice, so take the time to truly get to know it and consider making conscious adjustments if necessary.
Finally, check your assumptions about self-compassion. Remember that, time and time again, researchers find that self-compassion not only helps us feel better but has positive practical consequences too. Self-compassion is a powerful motivational tool that can help you persist, even in the face of challenges.
At first, self-compassion might feel foreign, scary or difficult. Be patient with yourself. Remember that self-compassion is about relating to yourself in a more constructive and nurturing way, and that it might take time to develop. It’s not about feeling good all the time. I’ve seen how, just like beginning a new physical workout regimen, the journey to relate to yourself with compassion can be difficult, even painful at the start.
For many people, self-compassion is a radically different approach than they’re used to – it means having compassion for yourself that’s unconditional, regardless of your circumstances or achievements. This stands at odds with a culture that often rewards us for accomplishments, capital and accolades. Where the ego whispers a siren’s call (achieve more, do better, and you will be worthy), self-compassion is the reliable friend that we all deserve (I believe in you, I’m here for you, no matter what).
Thinking back to my high-school classmate berating herself in front of the bathroom mirror, I wish she could have known that she didn’t have to be her own bully. If she’d believed in the power of self-compassion, I might have instead overheard a self-compassionate pep talk: ‘Receiving that bad test score really hurt, but it doesn’t say anything bad about me as a person. I know that other people in class are struggling, too, and that I’m not alone in this. I’ll ask for help on how to study more effectively, and get the support I need and deserve.’ In my clinical work and research, I’ve seen that self-compassion is a resiliency supercharger. If my classmate could have befriended herself, I bet she’d have found school would improve, and her life down the road would have grown much richer.
Know that this applies to you, too. While the journey towards cultivating greater self-compassion might seem daunting, it’s worthwhile. With you by your own side, you will be unstoppable.