“We are what we believe we are” – CS Lewis
The concept of self compassion at its simplest is being a good friend to yourself. We often (but not always) know what we would say to a friend if they were having a rubbish time or feeling negative about themselves, but are often much more critical of ourselves than we are towards others. We don’t always say to ourselves things like “you tried your best” or “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time”. We often aren’t as friendly and warm when we talk to ourselves as we would be when talking to friends or others.
Self-esteem (feeling good about ourselves) requires feeling above average and this involves comparing ourselves to others. We start putting others down to feel better about ourselves and this can lead to us feeling judgemental towards others. We need to feel superior to feel OK, and to do this we blow others candles out in trying to shine brighter ourselves. It means that we struggle to feel happy for others when they succeed. And what sucks about self-esteem is that when you fail something, it abandons you and you’re left feeling rubbish about yourself – I’ve failed because I’m a failure.
According to Kristin Neff who has spent her career researching self compassion, you need 3 components to self compassion so that it doesn’t become self pity. These are
- Self kindness – treating ourselves with the kindness and warmth we would show to a friend
- Common humanity – the understanding that life is hard and that others are also going through hard things
- Mindfulness – an understanding of what we are feeling and experiencing
Common humanity is important because if we think it is only us experiencing hard times then we feel sorry for ourselves and experience self-pity. It needs mindfulness because we need to understand what we are thinking and feeling and to be able to sit with how we feel, feel the pain and have compassion towards ourselves. We have to be able to turn towards our feelings, and this involves knowing what we’re actually feeling.
What I love about self compassion is that you still get the benefits of having a high self-esteem, but it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing or what anyone else thinks of you. You don’t need to be better than anyone else. You can fail. Life can be hard or you can mess things up. It’s part of life that we all go through hard times and that we all will mess up. But self compassion allows us to say to ourselves “it’s OK”, “I understand”, “everyone feels like this sometimes”, “you’re not a failure because you’ve failed an exam”, “of course you feel like this, it’s so understandable”, “you’re doing the best you can”.
If we can allow ourselves to fail and to mess up, but then be gentle and kind to ourselves about it, we can learn and we can grow. We don’t become paralysed with fear of failure or fear of rejection. When a baby learns to walk we expect it to take a while and for them to fall over hundreds of times. We don’t pick them up and tell them not to bother anymore. And so is life. If we can be kind enough to ourselves that falling down is inevitable and trying again is the way forward then failure stops paralysing us. Self compassion isn’t about striving towards a perfect version of yourself, but about accepting yourself as you are.
How much is your inner critic really interested in your wellbeing? Where does the critical inner voice even come from? Whose voice is it? Maybe someone who judged you harshly when you were younger? A critical parent or teacher? Because if we’re honest, if we had a friend who was highly critical of us and kept saying mean things to us then the wisest thing would be to steer clear of them. And yet we so often allow ourselves to say such things and become so used to it that we don’t even notice how critical we can be to ourselves.
Compassion is about kindness, acceptance and non-judgement. How can you offer these things to yourself? Be kind to yourself because you’re doing the best you can.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion” – Dalai Lama