“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” – Kristin Neff
I recently dragged myself to a training on self-compassion and emotional resilience led by Dr. Kristin Neff. I say dragged because I was feeling quite ill at the time of the training, but had been impatiently waiting for this seminar for months. I look forward to attending educational seminars (nerd out). I spend years pouring over articles and books so by the time I get to see the researcher in person it feels like I am meeting a celebrity.
Five or six years ago, a therapist I was working with asked me to take a self-compassion assessment. I failed the test, meaning I was highly critical of myself and my expectations of myself were impossibly high. He was not shocked by the results. It was the first time I realized that the way I talk to and about myself influences how I feel and how I interact with others.
Self compassion and self esteem must be distinguished.
Dr. Neff’s research deviates from self esteem research in several important ways. We now know that building self-esteem is actually not as healthy as we thought. This is the case for a few reasons.
1). Self esteem involves holding the belief that I am above average in all areas of my life (or at least most) and where I fail to be above average, I fail to have self-worth. I think we can understand why this is (mathematically impossible) problematic.
2). It involves social comparison. There is the constant need to be evaluating myself against others in an effort to know my own worth. Social comparison is ultimately self-defeating. What makes you happy, might not make me happy, so social comparison is not a healthy indicator of success/happiness.
3). Building self-esteem has resulted in a surge of people that score high on scales of narcissism. When you teach a generation of people that they are better than everyone or that they need to be better than everyone in order to be worth anything (self esteem), you can’t be shocked when they believe what you say and then lack empathy and compassion for those that struggle.
“They are the generation that invented the selfie stick” – Kevin B.
Finally, and what I find most damaging about self-esteem, is that it is contingent upon “success”. It is impossible to always be successful. We all inevitably fail at something and if you have not failed then the alternative is that you are not trying things that challenge you.
Today’s challenge: How kind are you to yourself?
And please, take Dr. Neff’s test yourself to assess your own level of self-compassion
Please take a moment to consider an aspect of your life you are struggling with (there is always something). Now, think of all the things you say to yourself about this challenging area of your life.
Here are some classic examples of self criticism:
“When am I going to learn?”
“Is this ever going to end”
“I’ll never figure it out”
“I’m just always going to be fat”
“I’m just dumb”
“I should not have this problem”
How does it feel to hear those things?
Would you say those things to someone you love or to a small child?
Why or why not?
What might you say instead?
Why might you speak differently to yourself as opposed to someone you love?
I am not coddling myself with this approach. There is a growing body of research establishing a link between self-criticism and physical/emotional health challenges. It is unhealthy in our relationships with ourselves and with others. We will expand on the other dimensions of self-compassion in the upcoming posts.
“Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals” – Dr. Kristin Neff