Dr. Kristin Neff has defined self-compassion as having three elements: “self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.” In order to engage self-compassion, one must observe the suffering, “feel moved” by or honoring it, and find a way to comfort and care for ourselves in the moment of suffering. It is an essential resource. And it can be elusive. We often take the well-travelled roads that we hope will lead us there- dieting or losing weight, cleanses, seeking an intimate partner relationship, applying for a job promotion, looking for ways to earn more money, effecting some huge life change. None of these are bad; in fact, they can bring us a lot of joy and satisfaction and benefit us. They just aren’t enough to improve and maintain our self-compassion.
When we have low self-compassion, we often seek out a lot of external validation, need to be liked at any cost, employ escapist tactics (substances, technology, food, shopping, etc.), accept disrespect or mistreatment from others, and are either critical of ourselves or are narcissistically defended against our own flaws. The lower our self-compassion, the more we engage in these behaviors and the lower our self-compassion plummets. It’s a real bummer of a cycle.
There are five critical behaviors to help improve your level of self-compassion. They are usually avoided by people who have trouble respecting themselves. If you suffer from a lack of self-compassion, you might read this and think, “Well, I don’t engage these behaviors precisely because I lack self-compassion. Then what?” It might seem impossible to unstick yourself from that catch-22.
I urge you to take a risk. Just try it. Try doing what people with self-compassion do and see how it feels. Just see if you feel any difference. If you hate it, and you decide you are happier with things as they were before, then that’s fine. I think you might like the results, though.
So, what are some of the tricks used by people who have self-compassion?
- They set boundaries. They say “no” to things that don’t work for them. They don’t accept disrespectful treatment. They let people know the terms that are both acceptable and unacceptable to them and hold that line. They’d rather live in integrity with themselves than be liked and accepted by others.
- They forgive themselves. People who have compassion for themselves don’t rake themselves over and over the coals if they slip up. They learn from it. They understand that mistakes are par for the course and that it’s ok. They know that they are not their mistakes.
- They allow themselves to fail. They allow themselves to be wrong or fall flat on their faces or come in last. They understand that this means they took a risk, put themselves out there, made an attempt at something. They gather the information from the failure and try again because they know that this time, they’re approaching the task with a better understanding. (This doesn’t mean they’re happy about the failure. It might still feel shitty. It can still feel totally frustrating.)
- They apply self-discipline. They set boundaries for themselves, too, tell themselves “no.” People with self-compassion know that they feel better about themselves when they balance fun with responsibility, health with decadence, relaxation with work. They know that they’ll feel shitty about themselves if they watch too much TV, eat too much garbage, and go to bed too late. They have a good understanding of what their effort will get them, so they apply it.
- They honestly identify their short-comings. People who have self-compassion are honest with themselves and others about their flaws. They know that to identify where they fall short means that they are less likely to take on more than they manage. They are more likely to work within their scope of competence, setting themselves up for a better chance of success. If they make a mistake, they’re more likely to hold themselves accountable for it. People with self-compassion don’t dwell on their flaws or invisibilize their positive attributes while highlighting the negatives. They use the information about their flaws to apply themselves in their endeavors.
I know that to some this list looks daunting. I get it. Patterns are hard to break, and we engage them for a reason. If you’re dissatisfied with your level of self-compassion and would like to come up with a plan together about how to troubleshoot this, I would love to talk with you about it!
Love and Be Loved,