When something has gone wrong, when there’s been a mistake made, no matter how small, many people are all too quick to point the finger — at themselves.
They flog themselves for any failure, letting their self-esteem bend and bow at the face of disappointments and triumphs. For many, self-esteem is shaky at best.
But there’s something you can build that’s more substantial than self-esteem. Something that doesn’t waver and can actually boost your well-being — and your performance isn’t a factor.
According to psychologist Kristin Neff, Ph.D, in her book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, that something is self-compassion. Being self-compassionate means that whether you win or lose, surpass your sky-high expectations or fall short, you still extend the same kindness and sympathy toward yourself, just like you would a good friend.
Again, cultivating self-compassion is good for us. Research has shown that people who are self-compassionate about their imperfections have a greater well-being than people who judge themselves.
According to Neff, self-compassion consists of three components: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Because most of us have a tough time with all three, I wanted to share what each component means along with a simple exercise from the book to develop each one.
In the book, Neff writes that self-kindness “means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal.” (Sound familiar?) That instead of condemning our mistakes, we try to understand them. That instead of continuing to criticize ourselves, we see just how damaging self-criticism is. And that we actively comfort ourselves.
Self-compassion means “recogniz[ing] that everyone has times when they blow it, and treat[ing] ourselves kindly.” Self-criticism damages our well-being. It leads to tension and anxiety. On the other hand, self-kindness leads to calmness, security and contentment, Neff explains.
Exercise. This might seem silly or strange at first, but when you’re upset, give yourself a hug or gently rock your body. Your body will respond to the physical warmth and care, Neff says. (Imagining a hug works, too.) In fact, hugging yourself actually has soothing benefits.
According to Neff, “research indicates that physical touch releases oxytocin [“hormone of love and bonding”], provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions and calms cardiovascular stress.”
Common humanity is recognizing the common human experience. As Neff writes, it’s different from self-acceptance or self-love, and both also are incomplete. Compassion acknowledges others, and even more so, it acknowledges that we are all fallible. That we are all interconnected and that we all suffer. In fact, compassion means “to suffer with,” Neff writes.
Neff applied this realization to her own life when she found out that her son has autism. “Instead of feeling ‘poor me,’ I would try to open my heart to all parents everywhere who were trying to do their best in challenging circumstances…I certainly wasn’t the only one having a hard time.”
Taking on this perspective led to two things, she says: She considered the unpredictability of being human, that being a parent has its ups and downs, its challenges and joys. She also considered that other parents have it far worse.
Self-compassion also helps you act. “The real gift of self-compassion, in fact, was that it gave me the equanimity needed to take actions that did ultimately help [my son].”
Neff concludes the chapter with these inspiring words:
“Being human is not about being any one particular way; it is about being as life creates you—with your own particular strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges, quirks and oddities. By accepting and embracing the human condition, I could better accept and embrace Rowan and also my role as the mother of an autistic child.”
Exercise. Think about a trait that you often criticize yourself for and “is an important part of your self-definition,” such as being a shy or lazy person. Then answer these questions:
- How often do you show this trait? Who are you when you don’t show it? “Are you still you?”
- Do certain circumstances bring out this trait? “Does this trait really define you if particular circumstances must be present in order for the trait to emerge?”
- What circumstances have led to you having this trait, such as childhood experiences or genetics? “If these ‘outside’ forces were partly responsible for you having this trait, is it accurate to think of the trait as reflecting the inner you?”
- Do you have a choice in showing this trait? Did you choose to have this trait in the first place?
- What if you “reframe your self-description”? Neff uses the example of reframing “I am an angry person” to “Sometimes, in certain circumstances, I get angry.” Neff asks: “By not identifying so strongly with this trait, does anything change? Can you sense any more space, freedom, peace of mind?”
Mindfulness is clearly seeing and accepting what’s happening right now—without judgment, Neff writes. “The idea is that we need to see things as they are, no more, no less, in order to respond to our current situation in the most compassionate—and therefore effective—manner.”
Mindfulness gives us perspective. Most of us, though, are used to focusing on our flaws, which easily distorts our view and saps any self-compassion. As Neff says, we can “become completely absorbed by our perceived flaws.” This means that we miss our suffering altogether. “In that moment, we don’t have the perspective needed to recognize the suffering caused by our feelings of imperfection, let alone to respond to them with compassion.”
When something goes wrong, Neff writes, we need to stop for several breaths, acknowledge that we’re going through a difficult time and also recognize that we deserve to respond to our pain in a caring way.
Exercise. One helpful way to promote mindfulness is with a practice called noting. That is, you note everything you think, feel, hear, smell and sense. To do this, Neff suggests picking a comfortable spot and sitting down for 10 to 20 minutes. Acknowledge each thought, feeling or sensation and just go on to the next one. Neff gives the following examples: “itch in left foot,” “excitement,” “plane flying overhead.”
If you get lost in thought, like if you start planning tomorrow’s breakfast, simply say “lost in thought” to yourself. According to Neff, “This skill offers a big payoff in terms of allowing us to be more fully engaged in the present, and it also provides us with the mental perspective needed to deal with challenging situations effectively.”
Cultivating self-compassion may not be easy, but it’s no doubt a worthwhile, empowering and liberating way to live your life.
What does self-compassion mean to you? What helps you be more self-compassionate? What is the hardest part about being compassionate toward yourself?