Let's talk about self-compassion - Notes from a therapist's desk
Updated: May 20, 2021
Self-compassion isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us.
Compassion for other people? Sure no problem! But it is like a switch gets flipped in our brain when it's us that would need the kindness and understanding we so readily give to others.
You might remember from my blog post on procrastination that most of us don’t actually want to get rid of our inner critic. We think that if we quiet that voice in our head giving us a hard time, we’ll slip into laziness, kidding ourselves, and/or a pattern of being selfish.
“Self-compassion is fine for other people”, our brain says. We just don’t want any of it for ourselves in case it lures us into complacency.
And the fact we find self-compassion so uncomfortable is maybe not so surprising. In our society there are a lot of ‘self words’ that we view as undesirable qualities; selfish, self-centered, self-indulgent, and self-pity to name just a few. Self-compassion just get lumped in with the rest of them.
Self-compassion wasn’t something I thought much about until I started to explore my own relationship to anxiety and perfectionism. I didn’t quite know what it was or let alone how to practice it for myself.
So as one person learning how to show themselves more compassion to another who is maybe looking to learn as well, let me share a few things I’ve learnt along the way.
Self-compassion is not self-pity
Your brain might be asking (as mine once did), “But doesn’t being self-compassionate just mean I’m throwing myself a pity party?”
In actuality, self-compassion is the research-proven solution for self-pity and self-absorption.
When we approach situations with self-compassion, we don’t disregard or ignore the bad stuff but rather shift our focus from how bad it is to accepting, experiencing, and eventually letting go of the difficult emotions using kindness and understanding to do so.
And this in turn leads to us to being more kind and compassionate with other people.
When our brain is filled with a constant stream of our inner critic's favorite classic hits like ‘You should have known better’ and ‘You’ve messed it up again', it makes it difficult for us to be present with other people and, in turn, increases our anxiety.
Self-compassion helps remove some of that noise and in turn provides us with more emotional energy to put into our interpersonal relationships.
Self-compassion is not selfish
During the safety presentation on an airplane we are always reminded to put our own oxygen mask on before helping other passengers.
It makes sense; if we pass out we’re not going to be of any use to anyone else who needs help.
But we don’t apply the same philosophy to our mental health and wellbeing.
How many times has your brain told you that taking time to be kind and considerate to yourself is selfish? If I had a penny for everytime my brain tried that line on me, I would be a wealthy woman!
Repeat after me: Self-sacrifice is not the opposite of selfishness.
Putting ourselves first doesn’t mean we are not kind, considerate, and compassionate people. It means we recognise we cannot pour from an empty cup.
And research backs this up. Self-compassionate people have been shown to be more kind, compassionate, and considerate towards others because they are able to sustain that compassion without burnout.
Self-compassion makes us lazy
Lastly, but certainly not least, our brain is often convinced that if we are kind and compassionate to ourselves, we will become complacent and lazy.
We believe self-criticism is the stick we need to get ourselves moving!
But this isn’t an approach most of us take with other people. When a friend or loved one came to you with a problem did you criticise and shame them into action? Or did you show them support, encouragement, and non-judgement?
Most of us choose the latter, because we know that the first option is likely counterproductive and will just make the other person feel worse.
And even though our brain is convinced this approach will work on other people but not ourselves, the research says otherwise.
In truth, self-compassion has been shown to be a far better self motivator than self-criticism.
This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge our failure or mistakes. It means when we do, we do so from a place of kindness and understanding that we’re allowed to be imperfect sometimes.
So how can we become more self-compassionate?
Self-compassion is something we need to keep actively choosing.
At first, making that choice takes a great deal of effort and as you choose it more and more often, it becomes a little easier but never easy.
Because we’re making a choice, one of the first steps to bringing more self-compassion into your life is increasing your awareness of how you currently speak to yourself.
Set some alarms for yourself on your phone for when you will check in to see what your internal self-talk sounds like.
Pinpoint those opportunities where your self-talk is unkind and unhelpful and infuse them with some self-compassion.
Ask yourself; Would I talk to a friend this way?
If the answer is no, take stock of what you would want to say to a friend and repeat that out loud to yourself.
Or simply say ‘I am human and I am trying. It’s okay to be imperfect sometimes’.
If you would like support with your journey to changing your relationship to your anxiety get in touch to discuss how one-to-one counselling might help.