The importance of self-compassion
The relationship we have with ourselves is the longest standing relationship we’ll have in our lifetime. And as we all know, building and maintaining healthy connections to one another can at times be tough and hard work, some may always be ‘a work in progress’.
The 29 year-long relationship I’ve had with myself has certainly been a work in progress. One of freedom as a teen, angst and fragility in my early 20s and finally acceptance as I approach the big 3 0. How did I manage this settlement with myself? By welcoming self-compassion into my relationship.
Whether we like it or not, we can’t escape the relationship we have with ourselves and at times, it needs daily work. This is where inviting self-compassion into our daily thoughts, feelings, reactions and decisions can have a profound effect on our emotional well-being.
What is self-compassion?
Compassion means to possess a deep feeling of understanding and sympathy for another person in distress, which motivates us to actively seek to relieve them of said pain. Many of us are able to extend the hand of compassion towards others, but find it difficult to show the same sense of kindness and forgiveness towards ourselves, particularly when we make a mistake.
A relationship with yourself would be incredibly tough if you were constantly berating your past mistakes. We wouldn’t hold a cherished friend accountable for one mistake, so why do we do this to ourselves and disregard self-compassion?
Transformational coach Catri Barrett explains that self-compassion embraces the whole person. “Self-compassion is an attitude of being warm, kind and understanding toward yourself, no matter your actions, thoughts, feelings, or reactions. Most people find it a lot easier to be kind to others than they do to themselves, with their default setting tending to be one of self-judgement rather than self-compassion.
“In particular, when things don’t go to plan, an inner critical voice can bully and berate these individuals with all their shortcomings and wrongdoings, giving the self-imposed reasons why they could do better.”
Why is self-compassion important?
Leading self-compassion researcher, author and teacher Dr Kritsen Neff coins three elements to self-compassion that can be helpful to refer to when trying to bring self-compassion to our awareness.
- Self-kindness vs. self-judgment. Replacing harsh criticism with kind, gentle words that offer comfort.
- Common humanity vs. isolation. Acknowledging that universally, everyone makes mistakes, and you are not the sole person to have done so.
- Mindfulness vs. over-identification. Observing your harsh, critical words without focusing, or becoming all-consumed by them.
Encouraging self-compassion not only encourages us to be kinder to ourselves and embrace ourselves as a whole, but it has also been scientifically proven to have significant positive effects on our overall well-being. Specifically, self-compassion can:
Resilience can be tough, and we can often fall into the trap of taking failure to heart. In the face of failure, you can be overly critical and harsh towards yourself, pushing yourself with negative thoughts to do better. In the long term, this tactic could lead to burnout, poor self-esteem and low self-worth.
Self-compassion allows you to acknowledge your internal voice, and become attuned to supporting yourself, building a foundation of positivity and realism. In doing so, you’re paving the way for solid resilience in the face of adversity.
Self-compassion can be linked to having a positive outlook on life, conscientiousness and curiosity, according to a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality. Results of their 2007 study determined that those practising self-compassion had a “significant positive association with self-reported measures of good moods, personal initiative and exploration”. The practice of self-compassion attests to a generally positive mindset with longevity.
Support mental health recovery
When struggling with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, it can be easy to speak negatively towards yourself for not coping better, or being frustrated for not ‘snapping out of it.’ Adapting self-compassion strategies to help manage these negative thoughts can effectively reduce the stress you place on yourself when struggling with a mental health condition.
In a 2003 study by Kristen Neff, results showed that “individuals who scored high on the trait of self-compassion reported significantly less self-criticism, neurotic perfectionism, depression, anxiety, rumination and thought suppression.” Self-compassion can also be linked to healthy adaptive coping strategies.
Encourage motivation and curiosity
Being compassionate towards yourself can motivate you to recover from a failure or mistake by practising or studying harder from a place of desire rather than criticism. According to a study by the University of California, researchers found that those who practice self-compassion spent more time studying for a difficult test following an initial failure, with findings suggesting that “taking an accepting approach to personal failure may make people more motivated to improve themselves”. By mindfully acknowledging your shortcomings, you can understand the best practice to move forward, and achieve your successes.
How to practice self-compassion
Catri suggests that by noticing and changing your thought processes, you cherish your uniqueness.
Our vulnerabilities and imperfections are what makes us human, and we can be compassionate towards these vulnerabilities by swapping the judgemental internal bully for a softer, more understanding voice.
“By taking into account our strengths as well as our shortcomings, we can approach ourselves with the same love and compassion usually reserved for those close to us. This allows us to become a lot more emotionally resilient, optimistic and develop better coping skills.”
Catri suggests working on the following tips to become your own cheerleader and practising self-compassion:
1. Highlight your strengths and challenge the inner bully
Make a list of all of your attributes, successes and achievements – the big and the small from your entire lifetime. Your inner critic is very good at reminding you of all your shortcomings and negating anything positive.
When that internal voice pipes up with, “You’ll never get that promotion”, respond to that voice in your head kindly with all your strengths and attributes that prove it wrong. “I am a talented marketeer, have won two awards and my boss gave me a glowing review last year”.
2. Practice forgiveness journalling
A practice I encourage all my coaching clients to develop is daily reflection. Each evening, spend at least five minutes journalling around the following questions:
- What do I need to forgive myself for?
- What went well today?
By practising this in the evening you can wipe the slate clean before going to sleep, starting a new day afresh. Holding space for what didn’t go so well in this way allows you to acknowledge where you might be falling into a critical judgement, and instead allow room for compassionate understanding, letting go of whatever you need to. It is important to then shift your focus on what did go well as a reminder of your strengths. Tell yourself what you’re grateful for and nurture a more positive mindset.
Self-compassion can be part of your daily practice, but for some, it can be much harder to cultivate than others. If you’re struggling with a harsh internal critic that is dominating the relationship you have with yourself, consider reaching out to a coach who can support you in silencing the internal turmoil.
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