How often are you practicing self-compassion? Be honest! As a licensed psychotherapist, I see a significant deficit in this practice. We tend to favor self-criticism or self-judgment over learning to be compassionate with ourselves and our experience. For most of us, a self-compassionate way-of-being is not something we were taught, nor did we have it modeled for us. Instead, many of us witnessed our family members being very self-critical and thus, we began to develop our own self-judgment, shame, and blame. We have become so accustomed to beating ourselves up that self-criticism feels comfortable and can even act as a way to soothe ourselves.
Self-criticism and the brain
It may seem contradictory that self-criticism would be a self-soothing strategy, but there is an explanation for this! When we are in danger, our threat system and sympathetic nervous system are activated and our fight-flight-freeze-fawn responses take hold. When our self-concept (the way we see ourselves) is threatened, our defense system responds as if we are unsafe, using the same nervous system responses to create feelings of safety.
What is unique about self-criticism though, is that we are both the attacker and the attacked. The goal of the inner-critic is to keep oneself safe by identifying and knowing the parts of ourselves that may be judged or ill-received by others. We are meant to try to prevent the threat of unbelonging by shaming ourselves into trying to be better, and become very comfortable with this voice that points out all of the ways we aren’t good enough and/or need to improve. For example, say you shared a performance you weren’t happy about. Some critical thoughts may be, “I’m not good at this. That was the worst performance I’ve ever done. I suck.” Like picking at a scab, these thoughts attempt to soothe a threatened nervous system, and aim to be coming from a place of concern and care. But as we know, this strategy doesn’t make us feel good, nor does it motivate us to make positive change.
What we know is that the caregiving system helps us deactivate the sympathetic nervous system response by activating the parasympathetic system, the system that relaxes us and calms us down. When we are being self-compassionate and practicing self-love, we are engaging the parasympathetic response instead. Being self-compassionate not only reduces our stress levels, but it also helps us change our internal narrative to one that is more healthy, positive and motivating.
What does self-compassion look like?
What does “self-compassion” even mean? Being more compassionate with yourself entails having some clarity that we all suffer and we are all imperfect. Tim Desmond, author of the article, Five Ways to Put Self-Compassion into Therapy, defines self-compassion in this way: “It is intimately tied to the practice of mindfulness, a special way of paying attention to the present moment, with complete acceptance of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Self-compassion comes from the understanding, gleaned through moments of mindfulness, that every human being suffers, that we all want to be happy but often don’t know how to find happiness, and that this commonality connects us with everyone else. Understanding these truths, recognizing our own vulnerabilities, and practicing more kindness toward ourselves is at the heart of self-compassion.”
To stop self-critique and start practicing self-compassion, we must learn to show ourselves kindness and develop acceptance for our inevitable, human imperfections. (Note: perfectionism is certainly NOT self-compassion!) Rather than blame, shame, or criticize ourselves, we try to treat ourselves with affirmation, forgiveness, warmth, and love. Practicing self-compassion is like speaking to yourself the way you would speak to a kid or anyone else you care deeply about!
Dr. Kristin Neff (expert researcher on self-compassion) identifies the following three elements of self-compassion and their self-critical counterparts:
SELF-KINDNESS VS. SELF JUDGMENT
Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.
COMMON HUMANITY VS. ISOLATION
Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if ‘I’ were the only person suffering or making mistakes.Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.
MINDFULNESS VS. OVER-IDENTIFICATION
Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”
I invite you to consider what your inner voice sounds like. Maybe even write down some of the key points and phrases you tend to say to yourself. Do you swing more easily into self-critique? Do you tend to shame yourself when you’re anxious or regularly think that you’ve “failed?” Then review the three elements of self-compassion and notice where you have room to embrace them and where you may really struggle to do so. How can you be more kind to yourself? Where can you remind yourself of your shared humanity and vulnerability? Where can you invite more mindfulness and less judgment? Remember: think about how you would talk about these things with someone you love. Then write the more compassionate phrases and ideas down too! Practicing self-compassion can change your life in the most positive ways. In neuroscience research, self-compassion has strengthened areas of the brain that help you feel happier, access more resilience, and be more attuned and empathic to others (Desmond). It can also lead you to a path of positive self-discovery, healing, and increased self-confidence. Now’s the time to stop trying to be so perfect and instead, trying to love your humanness more by being just good enough.
Tina Marie Del Rosario is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker/Therapist, Social Justice Advocate, and lover of food and travel. Tina works with individuals, partnerships, and groups to assist in self-discovery and desired outcomes. She enjoys working with people with creative minds and those who identify as out-of-the-box thinkers. Tina finds interest in, but not limited to, interpersonal relationships, identity and authenticity, self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and developmental and complex trauma.
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