Is self-compassion good or bad? If asked this question, most people would agree that self-compassion is a positive thing. It’s also likely that the majority of those people have spent their lives cultivating a harsh inner self-critic and readily indulge thoughts such as “I made such a stupid mistake, people must think I’m an idiot” or “I’m not a good parent/friend/partner/employee…why is it so hard for me to just get it together?” So what causes the discrepancy between our belief about self-compassion and our resistance to practicing it?
Even though they know that it makes them feel bad, many people subconsciously rely on self-criticism as a way of coping with rejection or failure. This could be attributed to the messages we receive and internalize as children whenever we acted in a way that was deemed “unacceptable”. These criticisms served to teach us how to behave according to the unwritten rules of society. Thus, when we experience failure as adults, we may use self-criticism as a way of “teaching ourselves” not to make that mistake again.
While healthy introspection is a valuable tool for self-improvement, self-criticism can be counter-productive for several reasons:
- no amount of self-criticism will change the past and undo whatever bad thing happened.
- self-criticism is demoralizing and discouraging. The more discouraged we feel, the less likely we are to overcome a failure by “getting back on the horse” and trying again. Imagine teaching a young child to ride a bike and saying “you fell off? How embarrassing. You must feel like a real idiot.” That kid is going back inside and will never think about riding a bike again until he talks about it with his own therapist 20 years later.
- self- criticism encourages a perfectionistic mindset, which is less about “striving for excellence” and more focused on “not making mistakes in an attempt to avoid the judgement of other people.”
Where does self-compassion come in?
Self-compassion is the antidote for self-criticism. Self-compassion does not mean resigning yourself to life’s circumstances. On the contrary, people who are successful in reaching their goals are shown to have higher levels of self-compassion. This is due to the fact that compassion fosters resilience and perseverance, rather than doubt and hopelessness.
Here are some ways to practice self-compassion:
- remain mindful of when self-talk turns negative. Ask yourself honestly the extent to which that inner dialogue is true.
- shift into a more flexible mindset. Hardly anything in life is black and white, so get comfortable sitting in the gray area. When you make a mistake tell yourself “well that wasn’t my most shining moment but in the grand scheme of things it’s hardly reflective of my true character.”
- avoid internalizing small mistakes. You might have done a bad thing by forgetting about your lunch date with a friend, but it does not mean you are a bad person.
- talk about your feelings with a friend. Chances are, they will automatically treat you with the compassion you are having trouble giving yourself.
Remember that everyone makes mistakes and experiences failure – it is part of the universal experience of being human. When we are able to be vulnerable and acknowledge fears and insecurities, we build stronger bonds with others and learn how to remove our own self-worth from the stakes. Go ahead and incorporate self-compassion into your life today – you deserve it!
Carolyn Moriarty, LPC