If the way you spoke to yourself over the past week were the way you spoke to your friend for a week, would that friendship still remain?
The question above always gives me a massive kick in the gut. I realise that if this was true, I would be facing a life with a lot less friends. How easy is it to berate yourself after eating a whole block of chocolate in one sitting, call yourself an idiot after saying something wrong, label yourself a failure after not receiving the mark you were hoping for on an assessment piece, or walk past a mirror and automatically remind how much weight you have added onto your body recently? However, we would think that saying all this to a friend is crazy-talk, and even just thinking about saying this to a friend feels uncomfortable. Yet, when we point it at ourselves, it somehow becomes acceptable and we convince ourselves that it will motivate us to become a better person.
I remember a few years back wondering what use it was that I had studied English, Math, Science, Business etc. for twelve years, when what I really needed was to learn how to love myself or that it was even okay for me to love myself, flaws and all. Over the course of my senior school years, my internal self-hate dialogue transformed my kind and understanding disposition into one that was resentful and angry. I had successfully starved myself of all types and avenues of love. It wasn’t until a few years later when my psychologist brought up the concept of self-compassion that things started to shift.
For me, self-compassion is loving yourself the healthy way. It is about becoming aware of your situation, emotions, and pain whilst facing them head on with kindness and concern, and the understanding that it is a part of the normal human experience, and not that we are a failure for being this way. Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion pioneer and researcher, defines self-compassion as “compassion directed inward, relating to ourselves as the object of care and concern when faced with the experience of suffering”. It comprises of three different but also interwoven elements; self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (further information here). Susan David, in her Emotional Agility book, also describes self-compassion as “a broad and inclusive view that doesn’t deny reality, but rather, recognises your challenges and failures as part of being human”. Essentially it is about loving yourself in an accepting and non-judgemental way.
It can be incredibly easy to forget the impact our thoughts can have on our life. I have previously written about the importance of filtering your thoughts and not succumb to accepting every thought as the truth, and learning to be more self-compassionate is no different. When I become intentional about counteracting my self-critical tendencies, I go through a particular scenario that involves a ‘critical person’, and a ‘compassionate person’ – sometimes, it can be even more beneficial to grab out three chairs and visualise yourself in each position talking to your inner basic needs (validation, acceptance etc.). For example, a situation such as failing an exam: The critical person may say ‘you are a failure and are never good enough’, ‘if you can’t understand this topic, why even bother trying to be a XXX’, ‘no matter how hard I try, I always end up failing’, or ‘maybe if you actually tried to study, you wouldn’t have put yourself in this situation AGAIN’. Whereas, the compassionate person response may say ‘that was a really tough exam’, ‘maybe next time I can take up the offer of getting a tutor for that subject’, or ‘I am really disappointed that I didn’t study for the exam, but realistically, it was super hard when things at home were really difficult’.
Choosing the compassionate approach, won’t change the past or even ensure that you won’t make the same mistake in the future, but it definitely does help with making decisions in the present moment. Criticizing your situation/yourself limits the possibilities of moving forward and can turn guilt into shame. Whereas, treating yourself compassionately gives you the freedom to fail, and in turn, gives you the freedom to take risks that allow us to grow into who we truly want to be. When being critical limits, compassion expands. When being critical isolates, compassion unifies.
Even to this day, I find critical thoughts are more comfortable, and I still wrestle (loathe) with the idea of loving myself, flaws and all. There are numerous moments every day where I have to ask myself ‘what would the ‘compassionate person’ say in this moment?’ when I realise that I am thinking my way into a self-critical black hole. Stubbornness aside, I know wholeheartedly that self-compassion is beneficial in every aspect of life, because time and time again that I choose self-compassion, I do more, I become more, and my current situation does not limit me.
Each and every one of us yearns to be accepted and loved, especially in our moments of shortcomings. Being at constant war, scrutinising every action or word we make, diminishes our ability to truly befriend the person who we need the most, ourself. Let’s all start treating ourselves the way we treat those we care about, because when we do, the world becomes limitless.
“Happiness stems from loving ourselves and our lives exactly as they are, knowing that joy and pain, strength and weakness, glory and failure, are all essential to the full human experience.” -Kristin Neff