May 26, 2023
By: Ariel Boyle, PhD Student, Therapist
The idea that we are our own worst critic seems to often ring true. Whether it’s about our performance in school, in work, how well we did on a date, we often will scrutinize ourselves, picking ourselves apart, evaluating our actions, often in a negative light, and making us feel bad about ourselves. Why is being kind to ourselves harder to do than being kind to others? Why is it so hard to give ourselves a break? What it means to be self-compassionate, and how we can put it into practice, are things we will explore in this blog post on the ins and outs of self-compassion.
What Is Self-Compassion? Paul Gilbert, a prominent researcher in the area of self-compassion, defines compassion as “a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it”. It can be boiled down to an awareness of the feelings of suffering in ourselves and others (whether it be emotional or physical suffering), a normalizing of pain as a universal human experience that we go through at one point or another, a kindness, approaching the struggle with care and concern, and taking the time and energy to alleviate that suffering, whether it be providing comfort, care, helpful perspectives, or action to address the issue.
We can all think of an instance where we’ve been compassionate towards someone we care about. You might notice how low they feel, understand how they might feel disappointment about not receiving something they worked so hard for. You may meet their self-criticism with kindness, validating their feelings, highlighting their strengths, and offering them a listening ear or to go see a movie together. While it might be hard to show up for ourselves in the way that we do for others, it is very important that we try. Self-compassion promotes well-being and can help protect us against stressful events and developing anxiety and depression. Self-compassion also helps us regulate our emotions. It allows us to balance out and soothe the emotions that come out of our threat and drive systems. Our threat system is the allows our body to respond to what it perceives as danger. Our drive system is what pushes us to try new things, move towards goals. Both systems are important, but if either becomes overly active, they can get in our way. For example, feeling so anxious about our school performance affecting our career that it makes it difficult to function, or feeling like we need to push ourselves more and more to the point where we become discouraged and disengaged, both do us more harm than good. This is where self-compassion can have a soothing effect, and can help balance out these systems.
Why Is Self-Compassion Hard? Self-compassion is harder for some of us than others. There can be many reasons for this, including early life experiences, like what we’ve learned from the ways others talk to us and each other, lack of awareness of our self-criticism, or negative beliefs about self-compassion. Self-compassion can also be difficult because of the function self-criticism serves. For some of us, self-criticism might serve as a punishment, a way to try to punish ourselves for something. For others it may also serve to try to motivate us, we may criticize ourselves in order to try to do better next time. It may look like telling ourselves the “shoulds” – I should have done *blank*, I shouldn’t ever *blank*. It may look like labelling ourselves or making generalizations – “I’m such a bad employee, no wonder I didn’t get the promotion”, “I never get enough done during the day”. What does your self-critical voice sound like? What does it pick at? How does it make you feel? While the goal of self-criticism may be to help yourself get out of the struggle you are currently in, the criticism more often than not keeps you feeling low, prevents effective action, and keeps you in an unhelpful cycle.
How Can We Become More Self-Compassionate? We can think of self-compassion, like any skill, as a muscle. If we haven’t used it much, it’ll be tricky to use at first, but will get easier with practice. There are multiple strategies that we can use to develop a self-compassionate practice, by using mental imagery, working with our thoughts, and trying new behaviors.
Once strategy makes use of imagery. We may not notice, but we often conjure images in our mind, whether we’re daydreaming, when a memory pops into our head, we visualize what someone is saying to us. Images in our mind can be rich, immersive and can make us feel emotions. We can use that to our advantage and in getting us into the mindset for self-compassion. A helpful exercise is to develop a mental image of us being compassionate towards someone we care about, it could be a family member, a friend, etc. Close your eyes and imagine that that person is in front of you in need of support. Notice what you’re feeling for them, what you’re feeling in your body and your mind, what you’re telling them, the tone of your voice, the expression on your face, and your actions towards that person. This is your compassionate self being activated. Some of us may not have people around us whom we feel intense compassion for, in which case we can develop a mental image of whatever compassion may look like or feel like to us. We can then bring these images to mind in moments when we need them, allowing the feeling of compassion to come over us and guide how we approach ourselves in times of struggle.
An additional approach to developing self-compassion is to allow these compassionate feelings to influence how we think about ourselves and our current struggle. Our thoughts and feelings are tightly linked. For example, two people who have failed a test may feel very differently, if one is thinking to themselves that they’re good for nothing and are not cut out for university, and the other is thinking to themselves they worked hard but there are concepts they still don’t understand. One may feel extremely sad, and not want to put any more effort into the course, whereas the other may feel disappointed and go see the teacher to get help for the next test. The negativity of self-critical thoughts influence how we feel, and the thoughts will feel true. We can elicit our compassionate feelings to generate alternate kinds of thoughts, more compassionate ones. Start by identifying your self-critical thoughts. What situation, memory, or feeling triggered it? What is the self-critical voice saying? Some prompts to activate more compassionate thinking can include: What does my compassionate image have to say about this? What would I want to tell the self-critical part of me? What would I tell a friend who was thinking and feeling like I do right now? Are there more helpful, kind, or realistic ways of viewing this situation? What can I do to cope and care for myself in this moment? The answers to these questions can help reduce the intensity of the original feelings triggered by the self-criticism and provide the much needed soothing of self-compassion.
Doing kind things for ourselves can help us get through tough times. Not everyone’s idea of a self-soothing activity is the same. What activities make you feel like you’re showing yourself care? It can be anything. For some, it can be, making themselves a nice meal, going for a walk, lighting a candle, phoning a friend, watching a good movie, taking time to breath, etc. While regular pre-planned soothing activities throughout the week are great, it can be good to have some that can easily be chosen in moments when you need them. Self-compassion can be just as much as self-soothing as it can be about the harder stuff, facing struggles and doing what it takes to overcome them. This can mean engaging in opposite action, where, if the situation is safe to do so, we tackle what we are avoiding, persist with what we want to give up on or are procrastinating on, seeking to be with others when we feel like isolating ourselves.
Conclusion As you may have noticed, self-compassion is an ongoing practice, a muscle that is used regularly in order to be kept strong, especially for the moments where we need it most. It’s also multifaceted, we can approach what we do, what we think, and how we feel with the spirit of self-compassion. What’s more, we can take a self-compassionate stance on our work to towards self-compassion – we can look any difficulties we have practicing and adopting these skills with a non-judgmental and understanding perspective. Acquiring a new skill is hard! And the willingness and motivation to take this challenge on is worth giving ourselves credit for.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. William Morrow: NY
Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London, UK