“You are perfect in your own way. You are worthy of Love”’
– Maya Angelou
What we really need is self-compassion
As we often hear, “we are our own worst enemy.” For many self-criticisms are what they believe drives them to do better. I have heard on many occasions from clients in my clinical work the belief that if they do not criticize themselves, they will fail. What they later come to realize is that self-criticism is getting in the way of achieving their goals and what they need is more self-compassion.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is the act of caring for loving and accepting ourselves unconditionally despite our mistakes or what we may perceive as imperfections or shortcomings. It can also be interpreted as an act of grace, in which we hold ourselves in high regard despite any external conditions or outcomes. When we have self-compassion, we encourage ourselves with positive affirming thoughts and energy.
Self-Compassion and Success
In the beginning stages of goal setting, we may feel excited as we think about how our life may change. Next comes the awkward stage of working through unfamiliar territory. As with any change, we are uncomfortable since our old habits are more familiar. Along with uncomfortable feelings may come self-criticism. An overindulgence becomes a monumental failure. A momentary lapse into old patterns of behavior drives the impulse to give up. This is an internal battle, otherwise known as self-punishment.
When we are stuck in a cycle of self-punishment, we are more likely to feel overwhelmed, defeated and less motivated to work toward achieving our desired goals. Tali Sharot (2017) highlighted that positive forms of motivation lead to increased productivity and creativity in individuals receiving rewards versus punitive forms of motivation on the job. In another study, Jack Matson (1991) conditioned students to accept failure by intentionally designing assignments that required them to fail on purpose. He found that this not only increased creativity in students but taught them to acknowledge their own ability to be innovative. This study demonstrates that accepting that we will make mistakes can help us succeed.
Self-Compassion and Relationships
You may have heard the saying that “hurt people hurt people” and I have found this to be true. This was a lesson I had to learn early in my career so that I could hold space for my clients without taking things personally. During my first counseling internship I worked on a psychiatric unit with teens with severe trauma history. When I attempted to hold my first group therapy session, rather than a welcome I received a series of verbal attacks. At the time I thought perhaps something was wrong with my approach, or that they simply did not like me. After receiving consult from my supervisor at the time she helped me recognize that the attacks were not about me, but rather about the pain they were feeling. She spoke of how I would have to look past what they were saying and look at what was really going on; that they were hurt and what they needed to learn was compassion from me as well as themselves.
When we have been hurt by others at any point in life it can impact our feelings of self-worth. When this happens often, it can lead to self-doubt. We may question our value and begin to believe the negative things that we have heard from others. Subsequently we begin to criticize ourselves. Yet this can all be changed if we begin to turn toward ourselves with compassion rather than criticism. When we respond to ourselves with more compassion and less criticism, we become kinder and less critical toward others.
Self-Compassion and Happiness
Maya Angelou said that “self-approval and self-acceptance in the now are the main keys to positive changes in every area of our lives.” Self-approval and self-acceptance are indicators of self-compassion. When we approve of ourselves and accept our perceived flaws, we are less likely to be concerned with negativity imposed by others. We are also less likely to seek external validation in unhealthy ways such as people pleasing, deliberate attention seeking behavior, and perfectionism. These forms of external validation can provide temporary happiness, but may later lead to burnout, forms of addiction, and self-harm because we have not addressed the core issue impacting our self-worth.
Individuals who are self-compassionate tend to experience less anxiety and greater life satisfaction (Germer & Neff, 2013). I often ask my clients in their first appointment; “when was the last time you felt happy?” The responses are varied, but two appear to highlight the connection between joy and self-approval. The first has been described as a memory of an accomplishment, highlighting a moment of self-approval. The second is a recollection of moments in time spent with others whom they felt comfortable with and free to be who they are. As they felt unconditionally accepted by another self-acceptance was triggered within, if only for the moment. These two examples emphasize that we are connected to joy during moments of self-approval and self-acceptance. Through self-compassion we can work toward unconditional self-acceptance despite our shortcomings.
How do I learn self-compassion?
There are many ways in which we can begin to practice self-compassion. Below are some exercises that may be helpful.
Acts of self-love
Practice acts of kindness toward yourself. Just as you would give a compliment to a stranger, perhaps you can practice giving compliments to yourself. You can also create a daily affirmation or thought shifting mantra. “I am worthy of love” or “I trust that my wisdom will guide me” are some examples. There is no right or wrong way to do this. What matters is that you are being intentional about showing yourself love.
Acts of self-grace
It is okay to make mistakes. Stop trying so hard to be perfect. Accept areas for growth and give yourself permission to make mistakes. Remember that tomorrow you will be better at whatever it is you are trying to do. When a critical thought appears, rather than judge or fight with it, simply acknowledge that your human and that you may have learned to treat yourself in this way from past experiences or societal influences. Simply acknowledging a negative thought in this way will eventually help you move past them more often.
Acts of self-care
Intentionally doing things to take care of yourself is important. This goes for your physical and mental/emotional health. A self-care act can be as simple as intentionally eating in healthy ways more often, or require more time, such as seeking support through therapy.
Acts of remaining in the present moment
When we think too far into the future, or dwell in the past, ruminating in our mistakes we are only keeping ourselves stuck in negativity, leading to increased anxiety and/or depression. On the other hand, when we learn to stay in the present moment, we are more likely to experience a sense of relief because we are not so focused on elements outside of our control.
Remember that persistence is key if you would like to improve your tendency toward self-compassion. The year 2020 was a challenging year for all of us, but it is during our greatest challenges when we need self-compassion the most. As we enter the new year, let us remember to be kind and gentle to ourselves and each other.
Germer, C.K. & Neff, K.D. (2013). Self-compassion in Clinical Practice.
Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69(8), 856-867.
Matson, J. (1991). Failure 101: rewarding failure in the classroom to stimulate creative behavior.
First Quarter, 25, 82-85.
Sharot, T. (2017, September 26). What motivates employees more: rewards or punishment.
Harvard Business Review.