You’re so ugly. You’re so fat. You’re so lazy all the time. You’re so dumb. You’ll never get this done. You’re such a failure.
These are some prime examples of what we would never tell other people; at least, not if we’re somewhat civil people ourselves.
Yet, you might find it fairly easy to dish out rude and nasty comments like these to yourself. You might even be doing it every day.
What are the effects of treating ourselves this way? Is it necessary to criticise ourselves in order to maintain a high standard?
Or would we be better off if we treated ourselves with more compassion?
The research field of self-compassion is fairly new to western psychology but the concept itself has been around for a long time in Buddhist thought (1).
Dr. Kristin Neff is a pioneer in this field and she explains self-compassion as “extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering”:
“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticising yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” (2)
According to Neff’s definition, self-compassion consists of three interrelated and two-sided components that show up during times of pain and failure (1):
Let’s look at these components in a little more detail…
1. Self-kindness vs self-judgment
Self-kindness is the ability to extend forgiveness, empathy and patience to your own actions, thoughts and feelings. A self-kind person views their worth as unconditional and affirms, even after failures, that his/herself deserves love and happiness no matter what.
Self-judgment, in contrast, involves being hostile, demeaning and critical of yourself. Self-judgmental people reject their own actions, thoughts, feelings and worth. This kind of self-treatment is often relentless and the pain it causes can be as bad, or even worse, as the situation itself.
2. Common humanity vs isolation
Buddhism claims that we are all intimately connected and that seeing ourselves as separate from others is an illusion. They say we all have a longing for connection and that common humanity involves recognising this connection in others, particularly when it comes to our imperfections and weaknesses. It involves forgiving yourself for being limited and imperfect. In other words, recognising that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience.
Isolation refers to the opposite. In times of pain and frustration many people feel cut off from others. If we believe that we, our failure, or our emotions are shameful, we will likely withdraw and hide our “true selves” and, consequently, feel alone in our struggle with inadequacy or failure.
3. Mindfulness vs over identification or avoidance
Mindfulness involves awareness of, attention to, and acceptance of, the present moment. It’s not only about cognitive attention but also an affectionate, friendly interest in one’s present experience. A ‘mindful person’ observes and labels thoughts and emotions rather than reacting to them. This kind of attention is believed to help deepen experience and learn from the present without the distractions of constant self-evaluations or worries about the past or the future.
Our mindfulness can be interrupted by two opposite alternatives: over identification or avoidance. Mindfulness resists both of these and can be seen as the middle ground between them. Over identification often means ruminating on your own limitations which causes a kind of tunnel vision which, in turn, prevents a deep experience of the present moment. People who over identify run the risk of exaggerating the significance of their failures. The other extreme is avoidance of painful experiences, thoughts and emotions. Avoidance can intensify negative feelings in the long-term and sacrifices increased understanding.
Both over identifying with, or avoiding, pain ruins our mindfulness and this stops us from exploring and learning from our thoughts, emotions and experiences.
A growing body of research suggests that there is a lot to be achieved from choosing self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness over their counterparts. Self-compassion helps people thrive and suffer less in a number of different ways, some of them being:
Less anxiety and depression. This is one of the most consistent findings in the research literature on self-compassion (3). A key feature of self-compassion is the lack of self-criticism and self-criticism is a big predictor of anxiety and depression.
Increased productivity. One study (4) found that a high level of self-compassion was associated among college students with resulting in less procrastination and higher motivation in order to complete assignments.
Greater creativity. Another study (5) showed that self-judgmental people demonstrate greater ‘creative originality’ after practicing self-compassion exercises compared with a control group. (what do you mean by a ‘control group’?)
Better self-regulation. You might think that a stern approach towards yourself is best if you want to drop a bad a habit but a recent study (6) showed that smokers, who offer themselves self-compassion rather than self-condemnation, were better able to cut down on their smoking.
Improved relationships. A study by Neff and Beretvas (7) showed that self-compassionate partners are described by their partners as being more emotionally connected, accepting and less detached, controlling and aggressive than those lacking self-compassion.
“I’m too old not to be on my own side.” – Maya Angelou
There are several ways you can boost your own self-compassion and reap the benefits of being kinder to yourself. Neff suggests the following ways to practice:
Meditation. Loosen the grip of self-critical thoughts and emotions by regularly practicing self-compassion meditation.
Write yourself a letter. Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend. Then put it away and read it later.
Write down your self-talk. Write down self-critical words that come to mind and ask yourself if you would say these words to a friend.
Develop a self-compassion mantra. Develop self-compassionate phrases that are easy to remember enabling you to control yourself when you’re being self-critical. For example: ’This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment.’
Create a self-compassion journal. Every evening, write down anything that you felt bad about, anything you judged yourself for, or any difficult experience that caused you pain. For each event, use mindfulness, a sense of common humanity and kindness to process the event in a more self-compassionate way.
For guided meditations and thorough step-by-step explanations of the exercises, visit Kristin Neff’s website. If you found this article interesting, I also highly recommend you check out her awesome book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
One study (8) that examined study habits concluded that:
“Forgiveness allows the individual to move past their maladaptive behaviour and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts to hinder studying.”
So the next time you find yourself being self-critical, remember that stacking shame and guilt on top of what you consider a poor performance only makes it harder to bounce back. Being too hard on yourself is neither healthy nor productive.
What’s important isn’t that you always perform according to your standards. What’s important is that you learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself so you can get out of your own way, get back on track and keep learning and growing.
Be mindful of your suffering and self-critical thoughts, remind yourself that we all screw up from time to time and practice treating yourself with a little more kindness:
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers