In A World of Shame, Self-Compassion Is A Radical Act
Add this vital practice to your life and change things for the better
In a culture where shame and self-admonishment is the norm, self-compassion is a practice that maybe you’ve never heard of. There’s constant talk about self-care and the vital importance of “filling our own cup” first, before we try to take care of others. It’s become so popular now that there are self-care coaches, self-care subscription boxes, retreats, and countless articles being published about its importance.
Women in particular are often quick to neglect themselves, instead striving to meet the needs of others, and be “perfect” partners, mothers, daughters and friends. We’re shamed into thinking that focus on ourselves is indulgent or even immoral. So this makes the self-care movement like a giant middle finger to the cultural norms that imply we don’t need to mind our own mental and physical health and can just keep hustling.
We’re shamed into thinking that focus on ourselves is indulgent or even immoral.
Self-esteem is also often on our lips as we talk about what is typically our lack of it. We compare, criticize and scrutinize ourselves as we desperately look for why or how we’re better than others. It’s a painful cycle that all of us get caught up in and it can have a devastating effect on our mental health.
Low self-esteem can fuel depression and anxiety. It can also cause us to develop destructive behaviors and thought patterns that harm us and those around us. It feeds perfectionism and sets us up for constant failure because ultimately we’ll never be good enough. There will always be someone or something better. We’re left feeling ashamed of who we are because we don’t measure up.
Before we talk about the actual practice of self-compassion, it’s important to define what it is. Dr. Kristin Neff is an internationally renowned expert on self-compassion and according to her, self-compassion is treating yourself with the same care and kindness as you would a good friend. It means affording yourself the same grace and understanding you do to others when they make a mistake or are going through a hard time. According to Neff, self-compassion has three main components:
- common humanity
Self-kindness is just as it sounds. When you’re struggling or suffering it’s simply being kind and understanding towards yourself. Rather than telling yourself to “snap out of it” or invalidating your feelings by denying they exist, you make space for them. You allow yourself to sit with them. It may be uncomfortable or feel counter intuitive, but uncomfortable feelings are part of being human.
And this brings us to the concept of shared humanity. We all make mistakes and mess up. Not a single one of us is perfect. As humans we will suffer with feelings of grief, loss, insecurity, anger, disappointment and fear. It’s these shared experiences that bring us together and connect us. When we’re quick to criticize or judge ourselves it can lead to increased isolation. Acknowledging that we’re all in this together can bring about an increased sense of belonging.
It’s these shared experiences that bring us together and connect us. When we’re quick to criticize or judge ourselves it can lead to increased isolation.
Finally, the idea of mindfulness as it relates to self-compassion is the act of observing life as it is. It’s about centering yourself in the present and leaning into whatever pain or discomfort you might be feeling. Mindfulness means that you allow an awareness of your pain to enter into your consciousness. You meet it and sit with it, rather than trying to problem solve your way out of it. Mindfulness won’t necessarily make the pain disappear, but in removing your resistance to it, you can decrease your suffering.
There are plenty of benefits to self-compassion. Not only does the regular practice of self-compassion move us away from being our own worst critics, it has immediate benefits for our emotional resilience. If we can get out of our own heads for long enough to realize that, “I’m not the only one who feels this way”, failures and set backs are less damaging. We can see that everyone will share these feelings at some point in time and suddenly they don’t feel quite as heavy.
Some may argue that self-compassion is like self-pity where we focus only on ourselves. This simply isn’t true. Self-compassion allows us to see things as they are — no more and no less. It puts your problems into perspective. Self-compassion also isn’t self-indulgent as it’s not focused on pleasure-seeking, rather it allows us the space to evaluate whether something is beneficial over the longer term.
There is also a myth that self-criticism is motivating, and therefore acting compassionately towards yourself means you’re going soft. Neff argues, and research supports, that this simply isn’t true. We know that self-criticism makes you fear failure and miserably push yourself towards whatever ends you’re trying to achieve.
Eventually, you lose faith in yourself and your abilities. Your self-esteem is further eroded and you fundamentally believe that “I am bad person and should be ashamed”, rather than focusing on changing behaviors that might not be working in your best interest.
Moving away from lifelong patterns of judgement and self-criticism isn’t an easy task. It’s not like we can wake up and suddenly decide that we’re our own best friends and the world is rosy. But by making subtle shifts in our thinking and behavior, we can move towards a regular practice of self-compassion that allows us to interact with our pain in a novel way. With practice, it can become our new normal and change our lives.
Adding self-compassion into your day doesn’t have to be complicated. There are plenty of small actions that you can easily incorporate into your routine. Challenge yourself to identify some of your more destructive thought patterns and observe where they come from. They may be rooted in a painful past experience and are simply a coping mechanism that you’ve developed over time.
Others may include evaluating your self-esteem, or setting aside time to work on a self-care activity. It’s important to approach these activities mindfully and to focus on your behaviors, not thoughts about whether what you do or how you act is good or bad. Moving away from the language of shame and worthiness is challenging, especially if these are lifelong patterns of thought and action.
Self-compassion is a radical act in a world where we’re taught that we’re not good enough and that emotional reactions to life’s circumstances are a reflection of weak character. With practice, self-compassion can fundamentally shift how you view yourself and others, leading to a place of quiet comfort, calm and acceptance.