Have you ever been told you need to be easier on yourself? Or that you hold yourself to impossible standards? Many of us do! Our society is one in which we are encouraged to push ourselves towards success, ignoring personal cues that we are doing too much or are not happy with what we are doing. We also live in a society that encourages us to compare ourselves to others and strive to be better than our peers, which leaves us often feeling bad about ourselves when we inevitably fall short on some matters.
Self-compassion is something we are not trained in socially- it feels unnatural to many of us to be kinder towards ourselves, showing understanding towards our shortcomings and flaws. We more often treat our flaws and shortcomings as things to eradicate within us, versus accepting it is part of our very humanity and acknowledging that perfection is impossible. The more we try to fight our imperfection, the more exhausted and drained we become, which can lead to more failure towards our goals. Self-compassion does not mean we do not have goals, do not strive to make needed changes, or “let ourselves off the hook” on “bad” habits or behaviors, but it does offer a different way we can notice these things and speak to ourselves about them.
The three main components of a self-compassionate practice are:
1) Mindfulness- In self-compassion, we think of mindfulness as noticing the present and “what is” without judgment, criticism, or blame. I think of judgment, criticism, and blame as harsh “elevator music” in our minds- we sometimes don’t even hear it consciously, but our unconscious brains certainly do and we suffer. Mindfulness requires awareness of what is in front of us (not getting swept away in an exaggerated or false storyline) and control of the information our brains feed us.
2) Common Humanity- This is a core element to self-compassion and separates the practice from one of self-pity! Common humanity means that we are all human and that a part of being human for all of us is that we face suffering, setbacks, and make mistakes. No one gets out of life unscathed, and no one is perfect. If we can access these thoughts, we can remind ourselves that even in our imperfection, we are perfectly normal and in good company with the rest of the world. Self-pity happens when we believe that “no one else has it as bad as me, no one else makes mistakes like me, no one else understands me”. Common humanity dismantles these thoughts, but although it still leaves space to acknowledge how much pain we may be in, it doesn’t mean that we are happy and carefree! It just means that when we make mistakes or experience hardships, our pain makes sense and is felt and understood by all.
3) Kindness- Kindness is consistently the hardest element for people to practice in self-compassion. Kindness means “empathy for the self,” or showing oneself the kindness and grace that we can so easily offer to others in their moments of struggle. Talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend who has gone through a similar situation. This often means acknowledging that although a mistake has been made, we are still good people overall and worthy of compassion and forgiveness. This may mean offering comfort and encouragement to the self. Or just acknowledging how tough a situation is and being able to sit with oneself in that moment.
To practice self-compassion, we would ideally like to be able to access all three elements. However, you can practice self-compassion with even one or two of these elements held in mind. Below is an example of how this can apply.
Shelby was on her way to work when she encountered a horrible traffic jam. Shelby realized she was going to be 15 minutes late for work. Shelby immediately began to chastise herself, letting herself know how stupid and irresponsible she was for getting into this position. Shelby went as far as to say that her boss should just go ahead and fire her because she was always going to be messing up somehow.
Shelby is clearly in a shame spiral and could utilize some self-compassion to help neutralize this situation. This could sound like:
Mindfulness- I am in the car on the way to work. There is unexpected traffic in my route. My GPS says I will be 15 minutes behind schedule. I feel anxious and my shoulders are tense. (This acknowledges the FACTS of the situation only, including the feelings and bodily sensations).
Common Humanity- Unexpected traffic can happen to anyone. Everyone has experienced a travel setback due to traffic before. Most people have been late to work on occasion and it is normal to feel upset about this. (This acknowledges that while we can be upset, the situation we are encountering is understandable. This “mistake” is not one in which we are alone).
Kindness- I am still a good employee despite this- I can remember positive feedback that I have been given about my job performance. I didn’t mean for this to happen, and it was an honest mistake. In the future, I can check my GPS for the best route prior to leaving. I am going to be okay! (Kindness leaves space for us to acknowledge the good and the bad within us and the situation. We can also kindly hold ourselves accountable for making changes and trying things differently next time, but we don’t need to beat ourselves up in order to do that. We can remind ourselves that things are going to work out in time.)
If you would like to learn more about self-compassion and how to utilize it, I am trained in the modality and am happy to work with you in individual, family, or couples therapy. I hope this short intro has been helpful to you!
Written by: Kelly Birkhold, LCSW (offering individual, couples, and family therapy as well as Self Compassion and DBT skills training)