Think about a time that you were overly critical with yourself. You looked in the mirror and didn’t like what you saw. You told yourself you were too skinny or too fat or even too average.
You picked apart the image looking back at you. Or you forgot something important, or made a mistake and you told yourself you were stupid or incompetent.
Research demonstrates that our brains have a negativity bias, meaning we are more sensitive to negative than positive. This is because in the natural environment, negative signals were a sign of trouble and therefore took up more of our awareness.
Our brains have evolved so that we are highly sensitive to negative information. The fight or flight response can be triggered in the brain’s amygdala in order to increase our chances of survival. This means that we tend to repeat negativity.
Due to our ever-increasing competitive societies, researchers speculate the tendency to choose self-punishment, rather than self-compassion, is on the rise. In fact, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 80 percent of the world’s population struggles with being overly critical with ourselves.
People often believe that punishing themselves will keep them in line and ultimately keep them safe. Unfortunately, self-criticism can lead to generalized hostility (toward oneself and others), anxiety and depression. Self-critics also report feeling like they have lower energy levels and often subconsciously engage in self-handicapping strategies, such as procrastination. These are problems that can prevent people from reaching their full potential and yet, this can be solved with self-compassion.
Self-compassion, according to psychologist Kristen Neff, is “the termination of constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us don’t recognize as harmful.” Basically, self-compassion enables us to say “I am having a difficult time. What is the most effective way I can comfort myself right now?”
We fall into self-deprecating patterns when we self-criticize and judge ourselves when we fall short of our goals. Instead, we can simply recognize that making mistakes is part of the human experience and make the decision to be kind when we need it the most.
According to a new study done by University of Texas at Austin educational psychologists Kristin Neff and Tasha Beretvas, people with self-compassion make better relationship partners. Being kind and supportive to ourselves helps us to be kinder and more supportive to those we care about.
More striking, said Neff, is the finding that:
individuals who described themselves as self-compassionate also tended to be described by their partners as being significantly more affectionate, intimate and accepting in their relationships, as well as granting more freedom and autonomy to partners. In contrast, individuals with lower levels of self-compassion were described by partners as being significantly more controlling, detached, domineering and verbally aggressive.
But if self-compassion is so important and has so many benefits, why does it seem to be so hard? We tend to believe that the way to improve is by constantly criticizing ourselves for our faults.
Psychologists Christopher K. Germer and Sharon Salzberg say “Change comes naturally when we open ourselves to emotional pain with uncommon kindness.” Self-compassion begins with small steps such as being a bit less self-critical, and then gradually building our self-acceptance as we become happier and more compassionate toward ourselves and others. The secret to self-compassion is learning how to be easier on yourself.
Fortunately, self-compassion can be learned. It is a practice that can help us all become less self-critical and, by preventing stress and turmoil, allow us to be happier, more successful, and of greater service to others. We must remember that the power of self-compassion is more than some insubstantial notion that doesn’t actually affect us. Thoughts and emotions have the same effect on our bodies whether they’re directed at ourselves or others.
Research suggests that self-compassion can be a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin. This hormone has been known to increase feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness and also facilitate the ability to feel warmth and compassion for others.
Self-compassion is a way to reflect on ourselves. Instead of hastily judging what we see, we can embrace what is right in front of us in order to positively work toward accomplishing our goals. When we choose to be self-compassionate, we are actively doing our part to eliminate the voice in our head that prevents us from moving in a positive direction. We are also increasing our chances of success in every area of our lives.
Do yourself a favor. Choose compassion.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Neff, Kristin. Self-compassion: Stop Beating Yourself up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: William Morrow, 2011.
Seppala, Emma. “Feeling It.” The Best Kept Secret to Happiness. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Sheikh, Usman. “Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur.” Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2012.