The Truth About Self-Compassion
Updated: May 3
“But how do I have self-compassion for something I am choosing? Something I am doing to myself?” This from a woman with Bulimia Nervosa, while discussing how to heal the shame she carries over past behaviors and their impact on her family. Her resistance to the idea of being kind to herself is not uncommon, but rather a sentiment I hear reflected too often in my practice.
As humans, it seems many of us have the tendency to believe that the only path to change is through constant vigilance and a desire to make no mistakes. This perfectionistic, black-and-white thinking is often accompanied by a critical inner voice, complete with all the self-admonishments we believe necessary to make us ‘toe-the-line’ and keep us from ‘messing up’. It’s the flawed idea that I must be hard on myself or I will never get better.
But that kind of negative self-talk and self-flagellation never works, and in fact often leads to engaging in the very behaviors we are trying to change. “When are you at your best, and most likely to succeed?” I often ask. “When you feel guilty and beaten down with shame, or when you feel confident and worthy?” Almost no one argues that they are their best when they feel good about themselves, but continue to fear that letting go of punishments and giving even the slightest amount of grace will result in everything falling apart.
This is the component that I feel creates the most confusion when it comes to self-compassion; the belief that having thoughts that offer love and kindness after a failure or mistake means letting yourself off the hook, or saying what happened was Ok – Ok in the sense that there are no consequences and no need for accountability. But that is not what self-compassion is about.
It’s not saying “Oh I binged again, but I was upset, so it’s not my fault.” Or, “Since I am upset, it’s ok to do whatever will make me feel better in this moment.” According to Dr. Kristen Neff, author and expert in her field, self-compassion is not self-indulgence, or letting yourself off the hook as these statements would indicate. Instead, it is offering to the self the same care and soothing we would offer to child or a friend.
It’s not ok to make bad choices time after time without reflection. And sometimes we need to take responsibility for the hurtful things that happen as a result of those choices. But the compassion piece is understanding that often we are doing the best we can. Though we might need to find a way to do better, we still have worth and value as a person, even when we fail. Instead of self-indulgence or rationalizing behaviors, self-compassion might look more like, “I binged again, and that was bad. This has been really hard and I feel awful about it. But at my core though, I know I am still a good person and I know I can be better than this.”
This type of self-compassion is recognizing our pain rather than ignoring it. Sometimes it is demonstrating that we care enough about ourselves to offer comfort and understanding in the place of harshness and judgment. It can be realizing that we are not uniquely defective or alone in our shame, and feeling comforted by knowing that others struggle too. And it is also accepting that things are going to happen and mistakes will be made, while maintaining the ability to love ourselves and remember our inherent worth.
What are your views on self-compassion? Is self-compassion something you yourself are willing to practice? We would love to hear your thoughts and feedback, and as always, thank you for allowing us to part of this life journey with you.
Originally published March 2, 2019