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How to be kinder to yourself

How to Be Kinder to Yourself: Embracing Self-Compassion for Personal Growth and Well-Being

By AuroraPublished about a month ago 13 min read
How to be kinder to yourself
Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

A.Need to know

Know the Importance of Self-Compassion

Picture yourself preparing for a critical situation, like a challenging conversation with a friend, a crucial sports match, or a presentation for your company's leadership. You've dedicated months to practicing what you'll say or do. However, when the moment arrives and you're face-to-face with your friend, in the middle of the game, or standing before your colleagues and superiors, you freeze. You find yourself unable to speak. You tense up and miss your opportunities. Feeling anxious and embarrassed, you fear losing your friend, being excluded from the team, or missing out on a promotion. Afterwards, you retreat to a private space to shed tears or squirm with discomfort, or perhaps both. In that moment, with tears streaming down your face and your stomach in knots, a flurry of thoughts races through your mind: Is this for real? She will never forgive me. / I won't be selected for the team again. / I will never advance. How could I mess up after all that practice? Why did I ever think I was capable in the first place? I am destined to fail at everything.

If you tend to impose undue pressure or expectations on yourself, you might be familiar with these types of self-critical thoughts. You may not welcome them, but they often occupy your mind.

The Flaw in Self-Criticism

Responding with self-criticism during moments of emotional distress is an attempt to alleviate our pain. Evolutionarily, self-criticism evolved as a response to social emotions like shame, humiliation, and guilt. Its purpose is to enhance our sense of control, shield us from judgment, channel our anger, and spur us to modify our behavior in the future. In essence, self-criticism is a strategy developed to ensure inclusion within a group for survival.

In my interactions with clients, I frequently observe this pattern: they believe that the more stringent they are with themselves, the more driven to change – and consequently accepted by others – they will become. By persevering through painful emotions, they anticipate emerging stronger. By setting unattainable standards, they are convinced they will eventually meet them. The overarching belief is that self-criticism, in all its forms, leads to improvement, increased effort, and greater accomplishments. However, the reality is more complex. Self-criticism does not heighten your sense of control; instead, it deceives your brain into perceiving control. Rather than shielding you from external judgment, self-criticism exposes you to your own. While it may redirect anger, it suppresses emotions rather than allowing their expression.

While some argue that self-criticism is necessary to drive change, this contradicts a fundamental principle of behaviorism: punishment is not as effective as reinforcement. Thankfully, there exists an alternative path, less traveled but effective against self-criticism – self-compassion.

The Power of Self-Compassion

Psychologist and self-compassion expert Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as being receptive to and moved by one's own suffering, experiencing sentiments of care and kindness towards oneself, adopting a compassionate, nonjudgmental stance towards one's shortcomings and failures, and acknowledging that one's experiences are part of the universal human condition. In essence, self-compassion involves becoming an ally to yourself rather than an adversary.

Self-compassion comprises three interconnected elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness entails treating yourself with kindness rather than harsh criticism. Common humanity involves recognizing that humans are imperfect beings on a journey of progression, interconnected through shared struggles. Mindfulness is the practice of observing thoughts and feelings without attachment – simply acknowledging them as they are.

Distinguishing self-compassion from self-esteem is crucial. While self-esteem involves comparing your abilities to others' or against an ideal standard to feel superior or valued, self-compassion centers on caring for yourself irrespective of your abilities. Consider the following contrast:

• High self-esteem: I achieved an A on the test! That proves I am more intelligent than most.

• High self-compassion: I earned an A on the test! It's a deserved outcome for the effort I invested in my studies.

Self-esteem focuses on outcomes, whereas self-compassion emphasizes the process. Studies indicate that self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem.

Moreover, the benefits of self-compassion extend beyond mental wellbeing. While the consequences of self-criticism, such as self-doubt and isolation, can escalate into mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, self-compassion offers a plethora of advantages for mental and physical health. Individuals with higher levels of self-compassion are less judgmental towards themselves, experience reduced levels of depression and anxiety, employ more adaptive coping mechanisms, are intrinsically motivated to grow (rather than seeking external approval), exhibit greater self-acceptance, feel more connected socially, and report higher life satisfaction.

Moreover, individuals high in self-compassion also fare better physically than those lacking in self-compassion: they encounter fewer illness symptoms, experience lower-intensity pain, and enjoy better quality sleep. These benefits are linked, at least partially, to self-compassion's ability to deactivate the body's threat response system (associated with insecurity and defensiveness) and activate the self-soothing system (linked to feelings of safety). Whereas self-criticism triggers the brain's threat detection center, the amygdala, escalating blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol levels, self-compassion induces the release of oxytocin, a hormone involved in stress regulation and nervous system calming.

Self-compassion can be challenging to embrace. Despite numerous studies highlighting the mental and physical advantages of self-compassion, many individuals are unfamiliar with this practice, as it may not have been demonstrated by their parents or caregivers. When children receive compassion, comfort, and support when needed, they are more likely to develop self-compassion skills themselves. Conversely, a lack of compassion in childhood can lead to difficulties in showing self-compassion later in life.

Misconceptions about self-compassion can also act as a barrier, with some fearing it could result in self-centeredness or laziness. Many clients resist self-compassion, believing they are undeserving due to perceived faults. This resistance often stems from a fear of stagnation and increased self-judgment. Criticism and self-punishment can hinder progress and lead to negative thought patterns. Taking a compassionate approach towards oneself can boost motivation for change, as it reduces the fear of making mistakes in the future.

For those who feel unworthy or undeserving, it's essential to recognize that these beliefs may be driven by fear of disappointing oneself or others further. Self-criticism can perpetuate feelings of self-hatred and hinder personal growth. This guide offers practical steps and exercises to help you develop and embrace self-compassion, serving as a tool to break free from self-critical tendencies.

B.What to do

Identifying Self-Criticism

For many individuals, self-criticism becomes a deeply ingrained habit that often goes unnoticed. Recognizing when self-criticism occurs is the initial step in breaking free from it and fostering self-compassion. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel emphasizes the importance of acknowledging self-criticism by stating, "Name it to tame it." To better understand your self-critical tendencies, it is beneficial to ask yourself probing questions rather than accepting them as truths. It is advisable to practice this reflection during calmer moments to train yourself to identify these tendencies more readily in future self-critical instances. Reflect on the following inquiries after the last time you were hard on yourself:

• Did I use derogatory names to address myself, such as 'stupid', 'idiot', or 'failure'?

• Was I fixating on worst-case scenarios, assuming negative outcomes like losing your job or feeling unwelcome at a social gathering?

• Did I impose phrases like 'should' or 'must' on myself, indicating a lack of self-acceptance?

• Did my body exhibit signs of stress, such as muscle tension, shallow breathing, or other physical manifestations of internal conflict?

While self-criticism manifests differently for each person, answering 'yes' to some or all of these questions suggests falling into self-criticism. Once you have identified these patterns, remain vigilant for these indicators in the future. By naming and recognizing self-criticism, you can gradually shift towards a more self-compassionate mindset.

Embracing Your Inner Critic

Upon recognizing your self-criticism patterns, some individuals paradoxically begin to criticize their inner critic, perpetuating the cycle. This response is common and stems from the brain's inclination to adhere to familiar patterns. To avoid this cycle, it is crucial to develop a relationship with your inner critic. Rather than dismissing its remarks or engaging in self-criticism, approach your inner critic with curiosity. Consider your inner critic as a distinct voice within your mind. Reflect on its messages either internally or through journaling by pondering:

• Why did my inner critic surface at this moment?

• What emotions is my inner critic prompting me to address?

• Is my inner critic signaling a perceived threat?

Approach your inner critic as a problem to be understood, similar to solving for X in a math equation. Once you grasp the intentions behind your inner critic's messages, express gratitude for its guidance. Acknowledge the insights provided by your inner critic and utilize them to address underlying concerns proactively.

Reframe Judgmental Thoughts as Factual Ones

In addition to befriending your inner critic, consider another approach - try reframing the comments of your inner critic in a nonjudgmental way. These comments often manifest as judgmental thoughts, such as "I’m so pathetic." Instead of accepting these statements as they are, it can be beneficial to reframe them objectively and factually. By doing so, you enable yourself to contemplate this self-criticism with less severity and more compassion. For example, if your inner critic said, "I’m so nosy. I shouldn’t have asked such personal questions," you could rephrase this as neutrally as possible. For instance, "I asked one question about my boss’s marriage that, in this moment, I wish I hadn’t asked."

By breaking down the statement into factual components, you specify the number of questions asked (one), describe the topic of the question (their marriage), eliminate judgments (the terms ‘nosy’ and ‘personal’), and substitute ‘should’ with a statement of desire or wish. Changing judgmental statements to factual ones serves a purpose. While judgments are necessary for decision-making, some judgments can distort our perception of reality, especially those that involve evaluation (such as labeling something as good or bad, deserving or undeserving). This distortion prevents us from truly seeing things as they are. If our vision is clouded by judgment, acceptance becomes challenging.

This principle applies to judgmental thoughts as much as anything else. Reducing a situation to its indisputable facts removes the judgmental fog that can lead you into an alternate reality based on your interpretations and assumptions about yourself and the world. If you stick with "I’m so nosy," you may conclude that interacting with your boss is risky and should be avoided. Conversely, by acknowledging the behavior for what it is ("I asked one question…"), you can reflect on the behavior itself rather than what it implies about you. Instead of deciding, "I must steer clear of my boss because I lack boundaries," you could conclude, "Moving forward, I aim to consider which topics are appropriate for workplace discussions." By toning down self-criticism, you can think more constructively about learning from the experience.

Identifying Your Values

Practicing self-compassion becomes more effective when focused on meeting your needs rather than making vague promises to be kinder to yourself. To comprehend your needs, you must first understand what you value most in life. It is during times when you are not aligning your actions with your values - and consequently neglecting self-compassion - that you tend to experience the most suffering.

Reflecting on my own experiences over the past couple of years, I realized that I had taken on more clients than I could handle. I agreed to meet them at times that suited them best, sacrificing my own self-care and relaxation time. This led me into a cycle of overextending myself, criticizing my choices, and justifying them by emphasizing my desire to help others. Predictably, this cycle led to burnout, as I found myself dreading each day, judging myself for my decisions, and feeling compelled to push through despite my exhaustion. I took a dedicated 10 minutes to ponder the same questions I pose to my clients to help them identify their values. Here are my responses:

1. What do you want your obituary to say about you and your life?

o I want my obituary to highlight my dedication to helping others and my work in mental health treatment, research, and writing. However, I also want it to mention that I lived life to the fullest - traveling, spending time with loved ones, and engaging in activities that brought me joy like reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and spontaneous road trips.

2. What values can you derive from your envisioned obituary?

o Beyond supporting and giving to others, I value the harmony between caring for others and caring for myself. I value rest, creativity, continuous learning, and spontaneity. Moreover, I value prioritizing my well-being even if it means declining others' requests.

3. In what ways are you not aligning with these values currently?

o I am not taking care of myself adequately at present. I feel overwhelmed and drained most days, neglecting the activities that bring me happiness.

4. What do you require in the short and long term?

o In the short term, I need to emphasize self-care by making small changes such as reading for pleasure before bed instead of checking emails. I also need to practice saying 'no' more often, even if it feels uncomfortable. Taking a day off in the upcoming weeks could be beneficial and serve as a self-care model for my clients. Long term, I might need to adjust my schedule by seeing fewer clients, finishing work earlier, or planning a week off to recharge.

After responding to these questions, my perspective on myself and my circumstances shifted. Previously, my self-judgment and criticism were dominant. However, afterwards, I recognized that I had strayed from my values and felt empowered to prioritize my needs. By revisiting these questions during challenging moments or setting aside regular intervals to review them, you can connect with yourself and guide your own self-compassion. Through consistent practice with these exercises, you may notice a shift in the tone of your inner dialogue, transforming your inner critic into a supportive and compassionate companion. Select and engage with the exercises that resonate with you, acknowledging that self-compassion is a personalized journey that may involve trial and error.

C. Key points – How to be kinder to yourself

1. Self-criticism is ineffective. Instead of shielding you from others' judgment, it exposes you to your own.

2. Self-compassion is a valuable option. It's not solely about boosting self-esteem; rather, it involves self-kindness, recognizing common humanity, and mindfulness – resulting in numerous mental and physical advantages.

3. Self-compassion may not always come naturally. You may view yourself as unworthy. Remember that approaching your failures and mistakes with compassion can enhance your motivation to change your behavior.

4. Learn to recognize self-criticism. If it has become a deeply ingrained habit, you may not even be aware that you are engaging in it.

5. Embrace your inner critic. Though it may seem counterintuitive, it will prove beneficial in the long run.

6. Transform judgmental thoughts into factual observations. This adjustment can lessen self-criticism, allowing for more constructive reflection on how you can learn from past events.

7. Engage in comforting touch. Experiment with comforting gestures such as embracing yourself, resting under a soft or weighted blanket, gently stroking your arm, or placing your hand on your heart or cheek.

8. Converse with a younger version of yourself. By externalizing and connecting with a past representation of yourself, you may discover it easier to adopt a compassionate outlook.

9. Determine your values. Self-compassion is most effective when directed towards fulfilling your needs rather than being a vague commitment to self-improvement. Understanding your needs involves recognizing your core values in life.

D. Learn more

The Social Aspect of Self-Compassion

Many individuals struggle with showing self-compassion, especially when experiencing emotions like shame, disappointment, or humiliation. These feelings often lead to the inclination to withdraw and isolate oneself, creating a gap from social interactions. Despite feeling resistant, in such situations, engaging with others can actually be a more self-compassionate response.

Being in the company of others provides the opportunity to receive compassion from them. This validation from our surroundings helps us learn to be compassionate towards ourselves. On the contrary, the absence of validation or experiencing invalidation can reinforce self-critical behaviors. Moreover, interacting with others exposes us to witnessing self-compassionate behaviors, making it more likely for us to adopt these strategies, especially when they are demonstrated by trusted individuals.

Additionally, being around others can disrupt self-critical thoughts and emotions like shame, disappointment, or humiliation. Research indicates that acting opposite to emotional impulses can help in distancing oneself from those emotions. For instance, if feeling shame after sharing personal information with colleagues prompts the desire to eat lunch alone, going against this urge can promote self-compassion. Instead of isolating oneself, choosing to have lunch with colleagues or talking to a friend while eating can send a message that you deserve company and your social needs matter.

While being with others can foster self-compassion, solitude can also be an act of self-compassion when it aligns with personal desires for rest, peace, or disconnection. Determining whether to practice self-compassion privately or in the presence of others can be challenging. A helpful approach is to ask yourself, "What do I truly need right now?"

E. Links & books

Kristin Neff's Self-Compassion website provides a variety of free, guided self-compassion exercises, which can be beneficial for individuals struggling to engage in this practice independently. In her 2013 TEDx talk, Neff further explains the distinctions between self-compassion and self-esteem, particularly focusing on the scientific research behind self-compassion.

The blog post 'The RAIN of Self-Compassion' (2021) by psychologist Tara Brach introduces a self-compassion meditation technique using the acronym RAIN - Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. This method offers a convenient approach to practicing self-compassion on the go.

Brené Brown's book 'The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are' (2010) serves as a motivational guide to embracing imperfections and living authentically, aligning closely with the principles of self-compassion.

Readers can explore the exercise 'Compassion for the Younger You' from Russ Harris's book 'The Reality Slap: How to Find Fulfillment When Life Hurts' (2nd ed, 2021) to delve into their inner child through a meditation format, providing additional support for treating oneself with love and care.

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Comments (1)

  • Mark Grahamabout a month ago

    Great article. I studied a few counseling courses in a graduate program and wondered if you did also or are a counselor. Being mindful of what your needs and others are very important.

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