Have you ever beat yourself up over something you said or did? Of course you have; we all do it.
It’s so easy to get into a cycle where we’re stuck in self-critical thoughts. We replay a conversation or something we did that we wish we could take back. It’s like, if we beat ourselves up enough, we can rewrite history and magically feel better.
But that’s not reality. Research suggests that self-criticism does more harm than good. When we think negatively about ourselves, changes happen in the brain that inhibit us from moving forward. Instead of feeling motivated to change, we become stymied by rumination, procrastination, and self-loathing.
And if we fuel these negative thoughts enough, self-criticism can contribute to mental health issues, such as depression, eating disorders, anxiety, substance use disorders, and even suicidality.
For the sake of our mental health, we need to figure out a way to respond to difficult situations instead of turning to self-criticism. This is where self-compassion comes in.
What is self-compassion?
When I first heard about self-compassion in graduate school, it sounded a little “out there.” I imagined chanting mantras to myself about how great I am and recycling trite affirmations intended to discount my feelings.
Throughout school, self-compassion came up more and more, and I realized that I’d been judging self-compassion without knowing exactly what it meant. I searched online for a good definition and found this one:
“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?”
I was surprised at how much this resonated with me. I know I’m not perfect, so why do I beat myself up when I do or say something that confirms this?
Suddenly, something clicked, if I, a therapist, struggle with this, then certainly people not clinically trained in it could use more self-compassion in their lives too. It seems so integral for having a healthy, balanced view of myself, a view that includes awareness that I’m not perfect but I can love myself anyway.
Self-criticism is like the friend who makes you feel ashamed, while self-compassion is like the friend who affirms that it’s okay to be human and encourages you to move forward.
Opposite of self-criticism, self-compassion promotes motivation, performance, and resilience.
Thoughts are just thoughts, not absolute truth.
Is it really that easy to practice self-compassion? For me, no – it is not.
Like most things in life, practicing self-compassion is a process. Negative thoughts will continue to crop up because the brain has a negativity bias.
But remember this: thoughts are just thoughts. Just because you think something doesn’t make it true.
When you have a negative thought, take a moment, review and weigh at the evidence. Is there any truth to it, or is it just fear bubbling up?
Then, come up with a more balanced thought. For example, a self-critical thought would be: “I’m never going to have a strong relationship with my parents.”
A more balanced, self-compassionate thought might be, “While our relationship might not be great tomorrow, I can continue to try to connect with my parents in small ways and make an effort to improve our relationship.”
One thing to make note of, the goal here isn’t to be blindly optimistic. Rather, you are acknowledging that life is complex, and there may not be an easy solution, but it’s still possible to move forward.
Battling against core beliefs.
Every one of us has core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world. Simply put, a core belief is just a strongly held belief, and we don’t always know they are there. Common core beliefs are “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m a failure.” Sometimes they might not be personal, such as “the world is unsafe” or “travel is dangerous.”
Generally speaking, core beliefs develop during childhood from messages we received from others, most often the people who raised us but also friends, teachers, and other family members.
We might have been criticized for a certain behavior, shamed for dressing a certain way, the music we listen to, or told that we were stupid. The culmination of these comments and behaviors unconsciously create beliefs that can be triggered in certain situations.
When those feelings are triggered, we tend to perpetuate these “stories” about ourselves. We might assume that we can’t handle a situation, or that we’ll definitely fail if we try to achieve a certain goal.
This quote sums it up well: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
Think of your experiences as a pair of sunglasses; they provide a slightly different view of the world than reality.
It’s possible to change our core beliefs by starting to recognize them when they pop up. Once we’re more aware of our trigger points, we can start to review the evidence and challenge whether or not that core belief has actual merit.
Self-acceptance can lead to self-compassion.
It’s worth repeating: no human is perfect. Most of us find it hard to accept that it’s normal to mess up. But when we accept who we are, we’re better able to practice self-compassion.
This doesn’t mean that we should be complacent. We’re all works-in-progress who can have goals to work toward.
Self-compassion means loving ourselves for where we’re at now and where we’re going. When we move away from criticizing ourselves for our shortcomings, we make the space for self-improvement.