The power of self-compassion
Are you your harshest critic? Do you say things to yourself that you would never dream of uttering to a good friend? You probably know you should be kinder to yourself, but often it’s difficult to practise self-compassion. This is especially true if you’ve grown up believing you need to be hard on yourself to achieve or be a good person. While undoing a lifetime of beliefs can be challenging, it is possible to learn to become more self-compassionate.
What is self-compassion?
Psychologist Catherine Moore explains that “When we forgive ourselves, accept our perceived flaws and show ourselves kindness, we practise self-compassion.” Compassion expert and author Dr Kristin Neff says there are three core characteristics of self-compassion:
1 Self-kindness: When you fail or make mistakes you choose to be kind to yourself rather than judgemental.
2 Common humanity: You understand that you’re only human and that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.
3 Mindfulness: You bring awareness to your suffering and what emotions you’re feeling, but you don’t over-identify or get stuck in them.
Self-compassion means extending the same kindness to yourself that you likely give to others. Author Courtney Ackerman writes that self-compassion “… means that you act the same way toward yourself when you are going through a tough time as you would act towards a dear friend: noticing the suffering, empathising or ‘suffering with’ yourself, and offering kindness and understanding.”
Developing self-compassion improves how you feel about yourself and has a positive flow-on effect in other areas of your life, including your health and wellbeing and your ability to reach your potential.
The power of self-compassion
While it’s commonly believed that being hard on yourself stops you from being weak, lazy or selfish, Neff disputes this idea. In her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, she says, “There are hundreds of studies showing that self-compassion doesn’t make you weak; in fact, it’s an incredibly powerful source of strength, coping and resilience.” She goes on to say, “Far from making us lazy, self-compassion is like rocket fuel for getting things done, keeping us focused on our goals, reducing performance anxiety, and most importantly, allowing us to learn from our mistakes, so we can grow from them.”
Over the years, I have discovered first-hand the power of self-compassion and how it can support health and healing. In my 20s I went through a seven-year journey with a chronic illness that drastically changed and reduced my abilities. I could no longer push through and drive myself to achieve. As a high-achieving personality, it was hard to adapt to these changes in my capabilities.
Developing more self-compassion, however, helped me navigate this period of my life with more ease and less stress. I reminded myself that I was doing my best and that my worth was not defined by what I could achieve. I learned to respect where my body was at and what it needed to heal. This meant being OK with not always being able to do what I wanted to do, or felt I “should” be able to do.
For example, it wasn’t unusual for me to struggle to make it through a full yoga class and have to leave half-way through. As tempting as it was to think, “How embarrassing!”, “You’re hopeless” or “Why do you even bother?” I chose to be kinder to myself and reframe the situation with more self-compassion. I would say positive things to myself like: “You’re doing your best”, “It’s great you’re giving things a go” and “Don’t give up”. In time I learned how to be kinder to myself and my body.
Being more self-compassionate has taught me the value of setting goals that focus on purpose and not just outcome. I have learned how to work smarter and not harder, so I can continue to support my health and stay out of burnout. This has meant focusing more, resisting distractions, taking on less and having more breaks and rest. Interestingly, this kinder approach to work is what your brain needs to work optimally. As neuroscientist Dr Sandra Bond Chapman says in her book Make Your Brain Smarter, “Our brain works for us when we quit working it to the max.”
Being kinder has also meant trying to be less of a perfectionist, as perfectionism often results in harsh self-criticism. To develop self-compassion, I regularly do what I call a “self-compassion mindset reframe”. Instead of focusing on what I’m not doing well, I look at what I am excelling at. Instead of comparing my journey to others, I stay focused on how far I have come. Instead of focusing on what I can’t do, I focus on what I can.
The power of self-compassion extends beyond just how it can improve your life. Brené Brown writes in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “When we’re kind to ourselves, we create a reservoir of compassion that we extend to others. Our children learn how to be self-compassionate by watching us, and the people around us feel free to be authentic and connected.” Self-compassion creates a beautiful ripple effect and has the power to change the relationships and the communities you are involved in.
Developing a growth mindset
Psychologist Dr Carol Dweck has studied why some people succeed while others struggle. Dweck identified that people have either a fixed or a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe their qualities and intelligence are fixed and static, while people with a growth mindset believe their qualities and intelligence develop and change over time.
Dweck noticed that people who have a fixed mindset don’t take on new challenges for fear of failure. As a result, they limit their ability to learn, grow and reach their full potential. Those with a growth mindset, however, enjoy and seek out challenges. They know their intelligence grows and they don’t see failure as personal, but simply part of the learning and growth journey of life. Dweck says that those with a growth mindset lay the foundations for greater success in life.
Self-compassion develops a growth mindset. When you see yourself as a “work in progress” you can forgive your mistakes and use them as opportunities to learn and grow. Having a growth mindset allows you to move through your life with more confidence, to bounce back from setbacks, to be more willing to take risks and to stretch in order to reach your potential.
Why can self-compassion be hard?
Being kind to yourself isn’t always easy. Neff says that for many of us, being self-critical stems from childhood experiences. She explains that you internalise the critical voices of your childhood, be that the voice of a parent, sibling or other influential person. As a result, it can be hard to be empathetic with yourself or to feel that you are good enough.
Growing up in a highly competitive and individualistic society can also contribute to harsh self-criticism. When comparison and pressure are the norm, you may feel you need to hustle for your self-worth. You may believe you need to be hard on yourself in order to succeed, using self-criticism to push yourself to try harder. The problem is that harsh self-criticism doesn’t set you up for success, but increases stress and anxiety.
The neuroscience of self-compassion
Self-criticism activates your amygdala, the fear centre of your brain, and releases your stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol become damaging to your body over time and deplete your feel-good neurochemicals. Studies have found that being self-critical can increase your risk of depression, as self-criticism leads to more rumination, negative thoughts, avoidance of problems and increased isolation.
Self-compassion, however, sets off an entirely different neurochemical process. Being kind to yourself has the power to release one of your feel-good neurochemicals, oxytocin. Neff says, “When we soothe our own pain, we are tapping into the mammalian caregiving system. And one important way the caregiving system works is by triggering the release of oxytocin.”
Oxytocin is commonly thought of as the hormone of love and bonding and it plays an important role in building connection and trust. When oxytocin is released, you feel safer, calmer, more trusting and generous. You also experience less fear and anxiety. Oxytocin also helps to counter the stress response.
Self-compassion keeps you out of survival mode, allowing you to be healthier and happier and to thrive in your life. Neff explains that “Self-kindness allows us to feel safe as we respond to painful experiences, so that we are no longer operating from a place of fear — and once we let go of insecurity, we can pursue our dreams with the confidence needed to actually achieve them.”
7 ways to build self-compassion
1 Notice your inner dialogue:
Notice when you say things like “I will never be good enough”, “I can’t let anyone down”,
“I must always be nice”, “I can’t do anything right”, “I’m such an idiot” or “I can’t believe I did that”. Awareness is the first step to shift your inner self-talk to build a kinder relationship with yourself.
2 Compassionate mindset reframes:
When you notice your self-talk has become critical, reframe your inner dialogue with self-compassion: “I am doing the best I can”, “It’s OK to make mistakes, that’s how I learn and grow” or “Not everyone is going to like me and that’s OK”. Add “yet” to your sentences to remind yourself of your growth journey, for example “I can’t understand this new work system … yet.”
3 Treat yourself as you would a friend:
Write out a letter to your friend, giving them advice as if they were in your situation. Read it back to yourself to connect with your softer, kinder and more compassionate side.
4 Loving-kindness meditation:
Being mindful helps you not to get hooked in negative self-talk. Try the Buddhist loving-kindness meditation that promotes compassion for self and others, using the positive mantra, “May I be well. May I be at peace. May I be free from suffering.”
5 Work smarter not harder:
Harsh self-criticism often drives overwork, perfectionism and burnout. Approach your workload with more self-compassion to support optimal brain function. Set realistic to-do lists, work with fewer distractions, take breaks, keep your purpose clear, understand the “must haves” versus “nice to haves” in your projects to keep scope in check.
When you’re tired your brain functions differently and it’s harder to regulate your emotions. This makes it easier to fall into negative thinking and self-criticism. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep to keep your emotions in check and your amygdala calm.
7 Get a kinder perspective:
It’s easy to believe the negative thoughts you have about yourself. When you notice your self-talk becoming critical, check in with a friend or family member who will remind you to be kinder to yourself and give you a more balanced perspective.
How can you be kinder to yourself today? Self-compassion is an invitation to take a load off, to be softer, gentler, less stressed and to step into your full potential. Neff says, “If you make self-compassion part of your daily life — responding in a more supportive way to everyday moments of fear, failure, sadness and insecurity — you will see the transformation almost immediately.” Move forward in your life knowing the transformative power of self-compassion, giving yourself permission to be kinder to yourself.
The 9 benefits of self-compassion
1 Greater happiness
2 Higher optimism
3 Better mood
4 A greater sense of wisdom
5 More motivation and willingness
to take initiative
6 Increased curiosity, learning and exploration
7 More empathy
8 More conscientiousness
9 Greater extroversion
Source: PositivePsychology.com, “What is self-compassion and what is self-love?”