Have a Better Life in NYC Through Self-Compassion
Do you think of yourself as a compassionate person? Compassion is defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” It’s the feeling you get when you see an abused animal on a television commercial, or learn that your best friend is grieving the loss of a loved one. When you feel compassion, you simultaneously understand the suffering of another and want to help them feel better. Compassion is innate in all of us, and most people can readily demonstrate compassion for others when it seems appropriate to do so.
So why is it so hard for us to show compassion to ourselves? It’s no secret that most people are harder on themselves than they are on others. We beat ourselves up when we make the smallest of mistakes, even if there are no negative consequences for our errors. We feel guilty for actions that won’t matter in the long run or take the blame for things that weren’t our fault. We can’t extend to ourselves the same courtesies, forgiveness, and care that we consistently offer others. Eventually, this self-flagellation and self-criticism will take their toll on our well-being.
It’s time for self-compassion
The concept of self-compassion has recently been gaining ground in psychology, and for a good reason. As a culture, we tend to think of self-care as a luxury or even a reward we grant ourselves only when time allows and we deem ourselves worthy. However, self-compassion isn’t a massage or pedicure. Although taking care of your body is a huge component of overall health and wellbeing, recognizing and tending to your mental health is crucial too.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a leader in the self-compassion movement, explains that self-compassion “involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself” as you would toward another person in the same situation. When you experience compassion for others, Neff says, you first notice that they are suffering. Next, you feel moved by their suffering, and your heart responds to the pain with warmth, caring, and the desire to help them in some way. Lastly, rather than feeling pity, you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfections are part of the shared human experience.
Like other forms of self-care — adopting habits and new ways of doing things that help you to be more satisfied, happier, and healthier — practicing self-compassion is an indication that you care about yourself and accept your worth. Dr. Steve Hickman, Executive Director of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, an organization co-founded with Dr. Kristin Neff, explains that efforts to motivate yourself to make positive lifestyle and psychological changes will be more successful if you treat yourself with self-compassion. Hickman offers an example through common New Year’s resolutions like losing weight or getting fit.
If you tell yourself that you want to lose weight because it’s important to stay healthy and be present longer for your family, you’re more motivated to succeed. However, it’s a very different thing to begin your New Year’s endeavor with a judgmental tone, telling yourself that you’ve only arrived at this awful state of health because you’ve let yourself go, that you’ve been too lazy to exercise and that you’re basically a terrible, overweight, out of shape person. If you take that approach your new healthier habits are viewed less favorably. They become more of a punishment for your past “bad” behavior rather than a new mindset encouraging success, increasing your chances of failure.
The elements of self-compassion
Neff has established three basic and widely-accepted components of true self-compassion:
- 1. self-kindness vs. self-judgment,
- 2. common humanity vs. isolation, and
- 3. mindfulness vs. over-identification.
Much like the New Year’s weight loss resolution example, Neff explains that self-kindness “entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate,” as opposed to beating ourselves up. This element of self-compassion encompasses our self-realization that we’re not perfect — that no one is perfect, really — and failure, difficulties, and mistakes are inevitable. No one is destined to get exactly what they want exactly when they want it, and self-kindness requires that we accept that fact.
Self-judgment — the opposite of self-kindness — is an easy trap to fall into. Psychology Today offers several examples of self-judgment, explaining that people who consider themselves perfectionists are perhaps the most vulnerable. You’re falling into the realm of self-judgment if you
- beat yourself up over mistakes that have minimal consequences,
- keep criticizing yourself after you’ve corrected a mistake,
- bump self-care off your list in favor of other priorities,
- interpret poor treatment by others as your fault,
- always go the extra mile,
- feel like a failure even if you have your life together, or
- see other people’s “dumb” mistakes as understandable but don’t view your own in this light.
Reframing these negative attitudes and misconceptions in favor of a mindset of self-kindness would be life-altering.
Neff explains that common humanity is “recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the human experience — something that we all go through rather than something that happens to ‘me’ alone.” Have you ever used the expression, “We’re only human?” Unfortunately, we almost always offer that statement when we’re comforting someone else who is feeling bad for something they’ve done. When you genuinely take that statement to heart and recognize the fact that you too are only human, and that all humans are fallible, you’re well on your way to practicing self-compassion.
On the other hand, isolation is the attitude that you’re going through hard times on your own, because of something you did, and thinking that no one else feels the same way as you or has ever made the same mistakes. This type of self-evaluation narrows your focus and magnifies your feelings of insufficiency and insecurity. Psychological isolation is akin to physical isolation. When you put yourself and your emotions into a metaphorical box or a soundproofed locked room, you become disconnected from the human condition as a whole. You become less aware that others are going through painful experiences too, and lose perspective of the big, we’re-all-human picture.
Neff advises taking the many factors that are out of our control but affect our feelings and actions into consideration, like our parenting history, culture, and genetic and environmental conditions. Understanding that these things are mostly out of our “sphere of influence” helps us lessen an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility.
The last component of self-compassion, mindfulness vs. over-identification, was perhaps the inspiration for the nonprofit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, the organization Neff co-founded in 2012 with Dr. Christopher Germer. Through the Center, individuals can learn about and explore ways to practice and teach mindful self-compassion. Mindfulness as a practice in itself has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Rooted in ancient Buddhist meditation traditions, the current mindfulness movement involves being fully present, being aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you. It’s a state of mind in which you consider events and feelings objectively, as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. You acknowledge that the events are occurring, but adopt a position of a non-judgemental observer so that you don’t “over-identify” with the situation. Think of it watching something floating down a river. You notice it, appreciate it, and then watch it go out of sight. While mindfulness is mostly a mental activity, there are also physical elements to the practice, including posture, breathing, and external environmental conditions that factor into a successful mindfulness experience.
What self-compassion is not
People are more familiar with the concepts of self-esteem and self-confidence than with self-compassion. Many probably assume that they are the same thing. However, Neff and her colleagues have studied and researched their differences and believe that understanding self-esteem and self-confidence is important to understanding self-compassion.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines self-esteem as “the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one’s self-concept are perceived to be positive.” That is, self-esteem is the degree to which you hold yourself and the qualities about you in high regard. Low self-esteem leads to feelings of worthlessness, which is a common symptom of depression. Conversely, overly high levels of self-esteem can be construed as narcissism, another unhealthy state. According to Neff, excessively high self-esteem requires feeling special and above average, and unfortunately, results in attitudes of superiority, leading to a tendency to engage in social comparison and looking down on others to raise one’s self-image.
Self-confidence is, similarly, a double-edged sword. Defined by the APA as “self-assurance” or “trust in one’s abilities, capacities, and judgment,” self-confidence is the quality that gives us the wherewithal to “rise to challenges, seize opportunities, deal with difficult situations, and take responsibility if and when things go awry.” This can be great — to a degree. Being able to approach a public speaking engagement, an important meeting, or a serious discussion with a partner with self-confidence is a positive, healthy trait that usually leads to better outcomes. A lack of self-confidence can hold you back from trying new things or facing challenging tasks. Overconfidence can lead you to overestimate your ability in something you’re not truly prepared for, leading to failure and embarrassment.
In contrast to both self-esteem and self-confidence, self-compassion is grounded in reality, objectivity, and total honesty with yourself. Neff tells the New York Times that self-compassion should be “framed in terms of humanity” and you should admit, “I’m an imperfect human being living an imperfect life.” She explains that self-compassion helps us to accept our flaws, including the fact that being average or having shortcomings (that is, below average) are both perfectly OK. Understanding that you’re not “superhuman” makes it easier to accept feedback and criticism and to improve on your shortcomings, mistakes, and failures.
Self-compassion can change your life
Embracing and practicing self-compassion can improve psychological health. Forgiving and nurturing yourself, according to Harvard Medical School, can lower levels of anxiety and depression and improve health, relationships, and mental wellbeing. When you stop beating yourself up for what is out of your control, or mistakes you’ve made in the past, you can start living more happily and with a sense of contentment. Stress levels reduce because you understand that you’re doing the best you can, and can’t do more. You’ll feel more comfortable exploring new things and taking pleasure in small indulgences because you won’t tell yourself that you don’t deserve to be happy.
Neff’s research has found significant positive associations with happiness, optimism, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extroversion. Stanford Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has also studied the scientific benefits of self-compassion, finding that when you stop letting your self-criticism get in your way, you “activate your biological nurturance and soothing system which leads to greater feelings of wellbeing.” The center also found that self-compassion helps you be more productive and successful, as you can more easily remain calm in the face of failure and rejection.
Self-compassion for women
In a recent blog post on her self-compassion.org website, Neff explains that women, in particular, need fierce self-compassion. Reflecting on the #MeToo movement and the 2018 Supreme Court confirmation testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford, Neff writes that when women speak up, get angry, or appear to be strong, some people are threatened and insulted by the behavior. Adopting self-compassion, says Neff, allows women to look beyond those real and perceived criticisms and stand up for themselves without second-guessing or feeling that they’ve done something wrong.
It’s important to note that women tend to be more self-flagellating than men. External pressures to maintain specific body shapes and weight, the tendency to become overloaded with responsibilities and volunteer tasks, and assumptions about how one should behave in relationships can lead to women criticizing themselves when they don’t live up to these expectations.
Interestingly, women are thought to be more compassionate with others than their male counterparts. The ability to nurture children, tend to aging parents, and extend kindness to strangers is viewed as an inborn gift in women. So why is exercising those same caring, thoughtful, and forgiving qualities for themselves so daunting and challenging?
One theory is that women feel self-compassion to be too self-indulgent, and believe that being hard on themselves is the only way they can succeed and accomplish more. Studies show, however, people who practice self-compassion are more motivated to work hard and get ahead.
Author Alexandra Jamieson offers a humorous illustration to help women frame self-compassion within a familiar context. “When you help a toddler learn how to walk and s/he inevitably falls,” she writes, “do you stand over the said child and yell, Dumb baby! You might as well give up! You’re terrible at walking!”
With this understanding of how life-changing and important self-compassion can be, you may be curious as to how to start practicing. Jamieson’s example of a toddler learning to walk offers a starting point: treat yourself like you would a small, curious, and striving child. Just as you wouldn’t criticize a baby for failing at walking on their first or even 50th try, you shouldn’t criticize yourself when you fail at a concept or task you’re still trying to grasp and learn. Instead, stop and think of what you’d say to a child or a loved one if they had made a similar mistake.
As noted earlier, another exercise intertwined with the concept of self-compassion is mindfulness, or becoming aware of and accepting your emotions and feelings without over-identifying with them or making them more important than they should be. Mindfulness is both a mental and a physical state in which you relax, regulate your breathing, and “turn toward and acknowledge [y]our difficult thoughts and feelings (such as inadequacy, sadness, anger, confusion) with a spirit of openness and curiosity.” Mindfulness and meditation go hand-in-hand, as both involve relaxation and contemplation. Chris Germer, a co-founder with Neff of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, offers several audio downloads to assist you with self-guided meditations to develop and nurture self-compassion.
Stanford’s Dr. Emma Seppala recommends writing as a method to learn self-compassion. Writing yourself a letter like the one you would write to a friend in need of your compassion, and writing down self-critical words then asking yourself if you would say these same words to a friend, are both options for evaluating your feelings and attitudes toward yourself. Another recommendation of Seppala’s is to develop easy-to-remember self-compassionate, self-affirming phrases to help you be kinder to yourself.
It’s easy to say that you should change your mindset to practice self-compassion, but in reality, it’s sometimes more challenging to do so on your own. Sometimes, the best way to work on self-compassion is to seek help from a mental health professional. Your therapist can help you work through self-esteem and self-confidence issues that may have led to anxiety and depression, and in the process explore how you can best practice self-compassion. With the innate pressures of keeping up with the ultra-fast pace of New York City, focusing on yourself and your mental wellbeing is a necessity. Those of us at the Therapy Group of NYC will offer a personalized therapy program that will help you build a strong foundation of self-compassion. Developing a healthy sense of self-compassion with the help of a mental health therapist will help you get from good to great.