Inevitably every holiday season, there are lots of articles about adopting punitive habits as resolutions — everything from “work out every single day” (whether you like it or not) to “cut out all that dessert you consumed at Christmas.”
This leads many of us to think that rigid rules, strict regimens and even self-criticism are the way to go.
But self-compassion is a lot more powerful. Self-criticism keeps us stagnant. Self-compassion helps us to learn and grow. It helps us to better understand ourselves. And it helps us to lead healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives.
Below two therapists shared suggestions for setting self-compassionate resolutions and habits in 2016.
Instead of setting a goal, set an intention. “An intention is bringing your attention and awareness to a quality you wish to manifest in your life,” said John Sovec, MA, LMFT, a psychotherapist in Pasadena, Calif.
How is this different from goals?
According to Sovec, intentions are qualities or virtues that change the daily quality of your life; goals typically focus on achievement. For instance, instead of “get ahead at work,” you might intend to “learn a new skill for your profession.”
Sovec shared these other examples of intentions: expressing forgiveness, releasing negativity from your life, building inner strength and practicing gratitude.
Be responsive to your needs.
“Being responsive to our needs is such a vital form of kindness toward ourselves,” said Joy Malek, MS, a psychotherapist who also offers coaching and creative workshops.
Sovec also noted that self-kindness is “about listening to the emotional, spiritual and physical needs each of us experience and prioritizing getting those needs met in a healthy manner.”
Malek shared these examples of tending to your needs: If you’re working on your laptop and feel sore and stiff, stretch and take a walk. If you’re feeling lonely, reach out to “feed your soul with connection.” If you’re knocking tasks off your to-do list and you’re hungry, take a break to nourish your body. “We wouldn’t push a friend to perform despite hunger, sleep deprivation or emotional turmoil, but we often demand this of ourselves.”
Support yourself through setbacks.
“When a dear friend experiences a setback [in their intentions], we don’t judge, condemn or predict bleak outcomes,” Malek said. So when you inevitably face a setback — because you’re human — she suggested asking yourself this question: “What would I tell a friend going through the same thing?” Then speak these kind words to yourself.
Empathize with yourself.
“Empathy is the root of kindness,” said Malek. And you might be great at empathizing with others, but unfamiliar with doing this for yourself.
According to Malek, this might look like: You had a fight with your loved one. You feel terrible about what you said. First you identify the thoughts and feelings that sparked your behavior. Then you empathize with your feelings by telling yourself: “Yes, I can see why I reacted with anger, since my anxiety button was being pushed,” or “When I spoke those cutting words, I was really overwhelmed with shame, so I can see why I had such a strong urge to lash out.”
Or you empathize with your thoughts: “I know that when the subject of our finances came up, I lost it, because I was thinking, ‘Here we go again — I can’t do this right before an important work meeting.'”
Empathy is powerful because it “helps us get to the root of where our behavior comes from, and then provides the kindness we need to take the courageous step of making repair,” Malek said.
If you find yourself still speaking harshly to yourself, she suggested starting over by asking this question: “What’s going on for me that is making this issue so challenging?”
See the whole picture.
“Self-compassion is a beautiful way to restore balance by looking at the whole picture, not just the parts we are dissatisfied with,” Malek said. And so often that’s where our minds drift: toward the accomplishments we didn’t accomplish; the money we didn’t make; the changes that never happened.
That’s why Malek suggested listing the experiences, accomplishments and growth that you did have. Also, remind yourself of who you are: your qualities, abilities, talents, past successes and strengths, she said. You can even use this to problem-solve. Malek suggested asking yourself: “How can I use my strengths and resources to overcome the obstacles I’m facing?”
Apply self-compassion to mistakes.
When we bash and berate ourselves for making mistakes, we become terrified of trying anything new and of learning from what happened. As Malek said, “the risk of feeling so badly about [ourselves] is too painful!”
Self-compassion creates a “safe environment for ourselves to learn and grow.” It lets us explore mistakes with curiosity and openness, Malek said. Self-judgment, however, makes us want to crawl into a hole, pretend that nothing happened and never ever go through a similar experience again.
“When I react to my mistake with self-compassion, it becomes much easier and less painful for me to examine what went wrong, and how I can be more effective in the future.”
So what does this look like?
Let’s say you’ve been trying to stay calm during stressful conversations, but you lost your temper. Instead of beating yourself up, you get curious. According to Malek, you ask yourself: “Why was that conversation so difficult for me? What feelings and thoughts were going through my mind? What was the specific trigger that caused me to lose my temper?”
Have a cheering section.
Surround yourself with people who might take the same journey with you or will cheer you on from the sidelines, Sovec said. Let these genuinely supportive people know about your intentions. And let them encourage you as you try your new practices.
You might be more used to setting resolutions that are focused on punishing yourself or pushing through. Being self-compassionate might seem impossible or ridiculous. But give it a try. The benefits are many.
Kid with aspirations photo available from Shutterstock