So you made a mistake, you forgot something important, jumped a light and got a fender bender, lost an important phone number, or email, forgot where you parked your car or bought something that turned out to be a dud. If that or something similar had happened to a good friend or family member, you’d probably tell them, “Don’t beat yourself up!” “Stuff happens, give yourself a break.” We rarely give ourselves the same advice.
But maybe we should! Recent research in the emerging field of compassion suggests there are good reasons to be kinder to yourself. It’s a very old idea, discussed by Buddhists 2,500 years ago, but now academic research is starting to study compassion.
What is compassion?
Compassion is the ability to be kind to yourself. It is that gentle ‘It’ll be okay’ when things go wrong. It is also an awareness that things are never perfect and we should not expect them to be, it’s a sensitivity to the difficulties and struggles of life coupled with a realization that we struggle in similar ways to everyone else. We are no different in that respect to greater humanity.
To be compassionate is often a struggle, I believe that it is very easy to deny or split ourselves off from recognition of the basic struggles of life and then be surprised if things are hard. Life is not always easy. This is such an obvious thing to write. But wait! The consequence of forgetting that LIFE is not always easy is that it’s simple to blame ourselves if things go a bit awry. But it gets worse! We create hypothetical standards for ourselves that require superhuman endeavours and then criticise ourselves mercilessly for failing to meet these impossible standards. You’re not stupid, so you don’t apply these standards to anyone else because deep down you know the’re unattainable. And yet, you still apply them to yourself. This is not compassionate, it is punitive. The overall consequences of this to push your self esteem lower.
Self esteem changes
We can think of self esteem as being on a continuum. At one end we have no self esteem at all and at the other end we have an over-abundance of self esteem. No one wants to be at either end of this spectrum and for very good reasons.
No self esteem—————————————————————-To much self esteem
Good self esteem
Good self-esteem is associated with many positive mental health outcomes, and this is were we all want to be. Too little self esteem leads to low mood and anxiety. But massively high self esteem can lead to negative experiences such as narcissism, self absorption and loss of insight into personal limitations.
Self esteem an important aspect of personality. Many of my clients have expressed concerns that as their depression lifts they will become cocky and over confident and that people will start to dislike them because of this lack of humility. This is sometimes a block that is hard to overcome because of prohibitions learned in youth not to ‘pretend to be something that you’re not’ and ‘not to be too proud of yourself.’ Nevertheless we still have the task of lifting self esteem to acceptable and useful levels and then keeping it there.
A tried and tested way to lift self esteem is simply to remove the things that drive it down while allowing your natural level of self esteem to find its normal and comfortable place within your personality.
Self compassion: developing compassion towards yourself
Understand your problems rather than judge yourself harshly. Self-compassion entails three main elements:-
Stop being judgemental
The first is to be understanding rather than judgemental towards yourself. For many people their internal dialogue is actually very harsh. Self-kindness requires you to re-frame your inner dialogue so that you’re kind and supportive instead of harsh and self defeating. As if a supportive friend was talking to you (the way you would talk to a friend in need). If you have a lifetime of practice at being hard on yourself then will naturally at first this will feel strange. And it will take some time for this different way of doing things to take hold. However, with some practice you will notice a change in how you feel about yourself.
Put your problems in context
The second element of developing compassion towards yourself is to always remember to put your experiences into a wider human context. When something goes wrong (or at least not how you want it to go) a common emotional reaction is “Why me?” The sense that things aren’t going the way they’re supposed to can lead to a feeling of being singled out or of being always unlucky in life. These are not good ideas to carry with you as they can take on the role of expectations and then self fulfilling prophecies…we don’t want that.
The opposite and more flexible reaction is to recognise that human experience is rather chaotic and unpredictable. To expect everything to work our perfectly is a recipe for disappointment and that opens the flood gate to self criticism.
Instead practice remembering that “this too will pass” as part of being compassionate towards yourself, this is a powerful intervention that helps you to feel connected with others (who may actually be in the same boat). Other people also suffer disappointments in life. Remembering that you are not the only one to experience these things is great medicine.
Learn to be mindful
Mindfulness is a practice that has gained widespread support in modern research and practice into how best to help people over come mental health problems, notably depression and anxiety. It is necessary to be somewhat ‘mindful’ to be able to be compassionate towards yourself. In essence you have to turn off your negative automatic responses and become aware that you are hurt, disappointed, upset, angry, or criticised. The vast majority of the life experiences you have are managed by a set of automatic responses. Being self critical and harsh towards yourself is no different. To change your hurt you have to become aware of your hurt. I find that being able to say something like ” I feel hurt but that’s okay because this too will pass” helps develop the awareness that are internal experiences are fleeting and transient. And that we do not have to always fully be in the emotion we experience. This is a truly liberating practice. To become more detached from your intense negative emotions is to attain an element of freedom. This is what we seek by practising mindfulness.
Your psychological well-being is so important is mustn’t be left to open to chance and random acts of nature. Work towards developing a stable and relatively enduring sense of personal value and life becomes a lot easier.