In a training on self-compassion I facilitated earlier this year, a participant shared something that I’ve held onto. She said her whole life she was told to treat others as she would want to be treated, but she had never thought about turning that logic around - to treat herself as she treats others.
I’ve held onto her words and thought about them often this year. I’m a social worker, and in my work, I support and coach teachers. Those of us in the helping professions are often great friends, compassionate family members, and so steady in our unconditional support of clients or students. But how do we respond to our own stress, pain, and imperfections? Do we offer the care and understanding we would show our best friend or student to ourselves?
For me, I know the answer is most frequently no. Instead, it often feels indulgent to treat myself with the compassion that I show others. I feel as though being hard on myself is the best way to better myself. Though this is what I feel intuitively, the research shows quite the opposite. In fact, according to The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education out of Stanford University, “Scientific data shows that self-criticism makes us weaker in the face of failure, more emotional, and less likely to assimilate lessons from our failures”.
The work of Dr. Kristin Neff on self-compassion offers us a way to reframe our thinking on how we respond to our own struggles. Neff’s definition for self-compassion is “having compassion for yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself.”
Self-compassion doesn’t release us from accountability or thinking critically about self-improvement. Instead, it gives us a way to consider our suffering and imperfections in light of the bigger picture and keep ourselves from spiraling into negative emotions.
Dr. Kristin Neff breaks self-compassion into three important pieces:
1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgement
It is inevitable in life that each of us will suffer, fail at something or be inadequate in some capacity. When we do, those who exercise self-compassion will be kind and understanding towards themselves, knowing that being imperfect and facing challenges is a part of life. Self-judgement, on the other hand, is when we beat ourselves up for a mistake, or start to believe that we are unworthy.
2. Common humanity vs. Isolation
An element of self-compassion is understanding that suffering is a shared human experience, not something that just happens to me. When I am having a hard time, I can be self-compassionate by remembering that I am not suffering alone, and that part of being a human is accepting imperfection.
3. Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification
Self-compassion requires a mindful approach to understanding our feelings. Mindfulness is the act of observing our feelings as they are, non-judgmentally without trying to suppress or deny them. It is just the act of noticing and feeling our emotions. According to Neff, it is essential to self-compassion that we hold a mindful awareness of our emotions because “we cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.” And it is also essential that we do not over-identify with negative emotions, allowing ourselves to get caught up with the negative experience for too long. We can prevent this by putting our personal experiences into perspective and thinking about others, and about the big picture of the world, and putting our suffering into that context.
You can read more about the three elements of self-compassion here.
So how well do you think you do at self-compassion? On her website, Dr. Neff offers a free test to see! Take the quiz and reflect to see which of these components are easy for you, and which ones are challenging.
Regardless, the next time you are experiencing a hard time, consider your thoughts and self-talk and ask, are you treating yourself the way you would treat someone else you care about?