As friends, partners, and parents we tend to be empathetic, supportive, and encouraging towards loved ones, especially in times of need. However, we tend to neglect ourselves of that same consideration. On the contrary, we often speak to ourselves worse than we would speak to someone we didn’t like.
What is self-compassion?
Increased attention is being paid by psychologists to the concept of ‘self-compassion’; how kindly we relate to ourselves. Having compassion for others involves being aware of the suffering, feeling moved by it, and offering understanding and kindness, as opposed to harsh judgement or criticism. Having compassion for ourselves is really no different. Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, describes the act of self-compassion as relating to oneself as though you are your own ideal mother; with love, care, kindness, and empathy. When you are distressed, ask yourself how you would respond to a loved one going through the same pain, and then try to respond to yourself in a similar manner.
Self-compassion differs in a number of ways to self-esteem but most importantly, self-compassion regards the way we relate to ourselves as opposed to the way we judge ourselves. But what if you don’t feel compassionate towards yourself? Just as you can go to work despite not feeling like it, or act lovingly towards a family member despite not feeling lovingly, you can act compassionately towards yourself regardless of how you feel. Due to the fact that self-compassion involves responding to yourself with kindness regardless of your performance, Dr Neff states that self-compassion “steps in at the very time that self-esteem lets you down”.
Dr. Neff reports that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. However, criticism has been shown to undermine motivation, leading to decreased performance. We know that criticising someone who has made a mistake is unlikely to be helpful and yet, this is the very way we tend to respond to ourselves. Self-compassion on the other hand, has been demonstrated to be highly conducive to motivation. When we act caringly towards ourselves, we are more likely to do what’s healthy rather than what’s harmful, for ourselves. Consequently, people who score more highly on measures of self-compassion have lower levels of depression and anxiety. Preliminary data is also starting to demonstrate the same link between self-compassion and weight loss.
While Neff herself admits that it is “..hard to unlearn habits of a lifetime,” she reports that people can learn to be more compassionate towards themselves through practise. Next time you experience distress, ask yourself how you would respond to a loved one experiencing the same pain and then try to apply that same treatment to yourself. For other exercises to develop your ability to respond compassionately towards yourself, visit Self-Compassion.
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