Since we last talked about this, I’ve learned that I’m most definitely not alone in struggling with being self-critical. 52% of women (and 37% of men) report being too hard on themselves.
I loved watching Reshma Saujani’s TED Talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection,” which came at a perfect time for this self-compassion exploration and helped speak to the gap between men and women in the self-critical statistic. Saujani talks about how, as a culture, “we’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.” She mentions having conversations with countless women who chose careers they knew they’d be successful in, sometimes sacrificing a true — but riskier — passion as a result. I can identify with this. I’ve always had an interest in medicine, but math and science weren’t my strongest subjects in school, so I pursued a path I knew I’d be better at. I don’t regret that choice, necessarily, but it does make me wonder why I couldn’t pull the trigger and go with my heart rather than my head. I know I struggle with always wanting to appear in control, to look and perform my best, and not to knowingly put myself into a situation where I might fail. “Women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they’re overly cautious,” Saujani says in her TED Talk. This is true and powerful stuff. Perfectionism is at the heart of this. And, as Brené Brown espouses, perfectionism acts as a barrier to self-compassion.
I wanted to spend time learning a bit more about this whole “self-compassion” thing. What’s it all about, and how can I become better at achieving it?
Here’s what I found:
Self-compassion, some argue, should outweigh self-esteem when it comes to being kinder to yourself. Self-esteem, this Psychology Today article notes, focuses on our positive evaluation of ourselves (how much we like or value ourselves) and often involves comparing ourselves to others. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is more sustainable than self-esteem because it’s a way of relating to ourselves.
“People feel self-compassion because they are human, not because they are special or above average. It emphasizes interconnection rather than separateness. With self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. It also offers more emotional stability than self-esteem because it is always there for you — when you’re on top of the world, and when you fall flat on your face.”
It was at this point that I came across a self-compassion quiz on Self-Compassion.org. “Here goes nothing!” I thought.
I ended up with a score of 2.58, which is just barely within the “moderately self-compassionate” range.
I have some work to do. But then, I already knew that.
Okay, now for the steps to improve self-compassion.
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff says three things will help get you on the road to self-compassion. They all seem relatively simple when reading them, but not as easy when you’re busy being hard on yourself. Ahem. (The below descriptors were captured by Tiny Buddha writer Bobbi Emel in a blog post, recalling a conference she attended that was taught by Neff. I included them in their entirety because I think the descriptions are very helpful in bringing these three tips to life.)
- Be kind to yourself.
The best way to think about being kind to yourself is to think about a friend.
Go ahead. Do it now. Visualize your best friend.
Now imagine she comes to you and says she is hurting because she was passed over for that promotion at work that she’s wanted for so long.
Would you say to her, “Well, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough. And you’re too mousy. You should have spoken up about wanting a promotion a long time ago.”
What? You wouldn’t say that to a friend? Would you say it to yourself?
It’s more likely that you would hug your friend and say, “Oh no! That’s terrible. I know how long you’ve been hoping to get that promotion. Come on, let’s go get some coffee and talk about it.”
You can be kind to yourself in this way, too. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering.
Just as you would hug your friend, soothe yourself as well. Put your hands over your heart or locate the spot in your body where your hurt is hiding and gently place both hands there.
Speak kindly to yourself. Call yourself by an endearing name.
“Oh, honey. I’m hurting because I wanted that promotion so badly. This is a really hard place to be in right now.”
2. Embrace your common humanity.
Many times when you criticize or judge yourself, you feel isolated. It seems as though you are the only one in the world who has that particular flaw.
And yet, we are all imperfect. We all suffer. And so we are all connected by our shared humanity.
One of the wonderful outcomes of self-compassion is our enhanced sense of belonging, the feeling that we are all in this together.
The next time you are looking in the mirror and not liking what you see, remember that you are an integral part of a flawed, wonderful, wounded, miraculous human tribe.
3. Be mindful.
How will you know that you are suffering if you are repressing your pain, rationalizing it, or busy with problem-solving?
You must allow awareness of your pain to enter in. Being mindful is about noticing what is happening in the moment and having no judgment about it.
Notice your hurt and just be with it, compassionately and with kindness.
And note that trying to make pain go away with self-compassion is just another way to repress pain and hurt. Self-compassion is about being with your suffering in a kind, loving way, not about making suffering disappear.
We will always have pain. But as Shinzen Young has noted: Suffering = Pain x Resistance. The more you resist your pain, perhaps by trying to make it go away, the more suffering you will experience.
Mindfulness allows you to stay with the pain without the resistance.
Armed with this newfound knowledge about self-compassion, I feel more motivated (and equipped) to cultivate it in my own life. It’s something that is often SO hard for me right now, but I also know how very important it is in making me happier, more open, and more fulfilled.
Ready? Let’s do this self-compassion thing.