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Self-compassion: friend or foe?

The impact is greater than you know
Blog 133 Self Compassion nguyen dang hoang nhu F Uq6 Pm6vn LI unsplash

While self-care seems to get lots of airtime these days, especially with all the challenges and changes we’ve had to face over the past couple of years, self-compassion is far less ubiquitous. We aren’t talking about a glass of quality wine or bubble baths here, although they are lovely indulgences to help us feel more relaxed. What we’re talking about is the ability to treat ourselves the same way we would treat someone else who is suffering. When our hearts engage due to someone else’s pain, that’s compassion.

Self-compassion follows on when we experience trials and tribulations too, which could be huge and dramatic like a divorce or loss of job, or something that seems minor, like discovering something about yourself that you don’t like. Our attitudes can generally be summed up with phrases like ‘she’ll be right’ and keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’. We might treat a grieving friend with understanding and kindness, and then treat ourselves with a lot more disdain for not coping as well as we think we should.

What comes to mind when you consider self-compassion? That it’s a weakness, or might slow you down or undermine your self-discipline? Does it seem like something more to add to the to do list? Or perhaps it just seems too new-agey, or like a feel-good trend that’s not really relevant.

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, an Associate Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Austin, Texas, and the trailblazer in this research, the three elements of self-compassion are:

  • self-kindness (as opposed to self-judgement)
  • acknowledging we are part of humanity and all its experiences (rather than isolated)
  • mindfulness (instead of over-identifying with our negative emotions)

Three things self-compassion is NOT:

  • self-pity
  • self-indulgence
  • self-esteem

Does it feel a bit controversial to consider shifting from valuing self-esteem to self-compassion? Schools and society have been pushing self-esteem as the goal for years now. Dr. Neff, however, wrote an article called, ‘Why we should stop chasing self-esteem and start developing self-compassion.’ In it she mentions an epidemic of narcissism brought about by the self-esteem movement, which involves feeling superior to or more special than others, and much harsher self-judgement when we aren’t. Her conclusion is that ‘we can learn to feel good about ourselves not because we’re special and above average, but because we’re human beings intrinsically worthy of respect.’

In her Tedx Talk, Dr. Neff explains that harsh self-judgements actually trigger our fight-or-flight response, which dumps the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin into our systems. If you think being self-critical will motivate you to perform better, think again! Our bodies are actually programmed to respond to warmth, gentle touch, and soft vocalisations in order to feel safe. This is our optimal state to do our best because our bodies release feel-good hormones. Research shows that self-compassion is strongly linked to mental well-being, while self-criticising increases risks of depression, anxiety, the severity of eating disorders, marital dissatisfaction, perfectionism, interpersonal problems, loneliness – the list goes on.

How then do we go about cultivating self-compassion? Here are three strategies you can try today:

  1. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friends. When they go through struggles, we tell them we’re there for them, we listen, we hug, we do nice things for them.
  2. Just as we’d stop a friend from being self-critical, we want to encourage ourselves to say supportive words instead.
  3. Accept that you are human, imperfect, and will make mistakes, just like everybody else. Forgive yourself, learn, and let things go.

Make it a goal to build your self-awareness to realise when you’re not practicing self-compassion. Strive to be mindful and present, rather than caught up in thoughts and judgements, and learn to love the gift that is you.

- The Coach Place Global.

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