5 Reasons You Should Take Self-Compassion Seriously

by Caitlin Cotter MSW, LICSW

 

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” —Christopher Germer

 

We’ve all been there before: falling short of our expectations, making bad decisions, being overlooked by others, or letting others down. We want to be perfect, but since we’re only human, it’s just not possible. When we feel discouraged, ashamed, rejected, or ‘less than’, we often respond by getting down on ourselves, criticizing our perceived failures, and enhancing the pain. Thankfully, there is another, better way to handle these difficult thoughts and feelings when they arise—and a growing body of research is showing that it has all kinds of benefits.

It’s called “self-compassion”, and essentially means treating yourself with the same kindness, gentleness, and acceptance you likely already extend to others, accepting your own strengths and imperfections equally. And though most of us don’t come by this naturally, it’s absolutely something that can be learned and cultivated.  Here are five important reasons to consider starting your own self-compassion practice today.

1) Self-Compassion is a Better Motivator than Critical Self-Talk

Often one of the biggest reasons we are so hard on ourselves is to try and motivate change. We dislike things about ourselves and so we push ourselves to be better by sending disapproving messages: “I shouldn’t have had that ice cream, I’m so gross,” “I can’t believe I screwed up on that test, I’m so stupid,” “Why did I say that? Everyone probably thinks I’m a loser.”  

This is something we often do without even being aware of it, something we likely learned through how others responded to our shortcomings very early in life. Criticism and disapproval, as a motivational strategy, can often be passed down and internalized from generation to generation, without any kind of awareness that this is not the best approach. Society and popular culture contributes to this too, sending constant messages to us about the value of winning, or making money, or being the best.

Research shows that self-criticism is associated with increased stress, fear of failure, and avoidant behaviors. However, those who are able to be more accepting of their shortcomings tend to have a greater sense of competence, a lesser chance of procrastination-related stress, higher reported levels of optimism, reduced feelings of isolation, and—paradoxically—are actually more motivated to try and improve themselves.

2) Self-Compassion Vs Self-Esteem

Most of us grew up hearing all about the importance of having good self-esteem. The problem with chasing after self-esteem, though, is that it relies heavily on praise and positive feedback from others—and we can quickly become dependent on feeling “above average” or fitting in. Seeking this, we soon find that we’re habitually comparing ourselves to others, noticing their flaws in order to feel better about ourselves. In addition, we often put ourselves down when we don’t meet the high bar our self-esteem is based on. It’s like being on a roller coaster: our self-esteem goes up and down, mostly based on our perception of how others see our value.

By practicing self-compassion, we can learn to embrace ourselves for who we actually are. No matter what’s going on with the self-esteem roller coaster, we can still maintain a sense of emotional balance. We accept that falling short or being average is simply part of being human, and therefore unavoidable. Our need to see ourselves as “better than” is replaced by a deep sense of interconnection. The view that we are just as deserving of love and support as any other human being makes it easier to treat ourselves with kindness, and also helps us feel less isolated and alone.

3) Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a prediction comes true, in large part due to the beliefs and behaviors of the individual. For example, Mary believes that no one wants to date her. Therefore, she predicts that no one will ask her out. Because she believes this is how it will go, Mary avoids social situations where other single people might be around—hoping to protect herself from the rejection that she is sure will occur—and thus drastically lowers the chances that someone actually will ask her out, which only confirms her belief.

When we are self-critical, we hold negative beliefs about our value and potential. And then, unfortunately, we often create situations where these beliefs are confirmed. If you see yourself as inadequate, you might pick a partner who is very demanding and critical of you. You might not apply for that promotion you want, predicting you'll get turned down. Your actions, rooted in these negative self-images, begin to shape how you are in the world and how the world responds to you. It can quickly become a destructive cycle. In other words, “You can’t hate your way into loving yourself.”

Practicing self-compassion can be a path to truly loving and accepting yourself, and feeling truly loved and accepted by others. If you can learn to see yourself as deserving of love and kindness, you are more likely to believe it when others see that in you, too. By changing how you are with yourself, you can transform your behaviors, your relationships and how you feel in the world.

4) Impact on the Brain and Body

Research has found that self-critical thoughts are like an emotional attack, and can trigger the fight/flight response in our nervous system, which leads to increased levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Over time, high levels of cortisol is linked to increased risk of depression, anxiety, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and cognitive impairment.

Conversely, practicing self-compassion triggers the tend and befriend system in our brain, which releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with love and bonding. Elevated levels of oxytocin can produce feelings of calm, safety, compassion, and trust. Oxytocin can also lower the levels of cortisol (and stress-related high blood pressure) while reducing feelings of fear and anxiety.

There are so many things we have to face in our lives that we can’t control. However, we can control how we respond to ourselves in the face of these hardships—and research shows this can have a big impact. For example, in a study of chronic acne sufferers, those who practiced self-compassion experienced lower levels of depression, as well as less physical discomfort, from their acne.

5) You Deserve It. We All Do.

In her book, Self-Compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff writes that the 3 core components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is the ability to shift our actions and inner dialogue to a softer more empathetic tone, similar to how you might speak to a dear friend. Common humanity is a sense of interconnectedness and belief that your feelings and experiences are part of being human. Mindfulness helps us become more aware of how we treat ourselves and builds our capacity to observe our experiences and reactions in a non-judgmental and balanced way. We don’t want to ignore our feelings, but we want to avoid exaggerating them as well.

 

How to Start:

  1. Go to self-compassion.org and take a quick self-assessment test to find out your current self-compassion levels.
     
  2. Practice observing how you speak to yourself. When you notice self-criticism, pause and think about how a loving friend might respond. Or, if the roles were reversed, how you would respond to a friend in the same position as you. Try speaking to yourself in this way instead and notice how you feel.
     
  3. Start a daily compassion journal. Try to jot down one or two kind, non-judgmental statements about yourself or your experiences each day.
     
  4. Take a compassion break. If you notice yourself feeling stressed or defeated, stop for a few minutes and put your hand on your heart or even give yourself a hug (I know it sounds silly but it can work!). Take some deep breaths and repeat a few kind words such as “I am doing the best I can” or “May I be at peace. May I feel loved.”