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Three Ways to Cultivate Self-Compassion | Part 1: Shift Your Paradigm

Photo by Hassan Ouajbir

In my last article, What We’ve Got Wrong About Self-Compassion, I wrote about how self-compassion can help us survive and thrive during difficult times and how our misunderstanding of self-compassion often prevents us from practicing it.

How do we cultivate self-compassion? It is more than going to the spa or having retail therapy when we are down. In this three-part series on how to cultivate self-compassion, I introduce a systematic and sustainable approach that can alter your relationship with yourself for the better:

  1. Part 1: Shift the story you’ve been telling yourself that stands in the way of full self-acceptance.
  2. Part 2: Cultivate a healthy and loving relationship with yourself by accepting your inadequacies and befriending your strengths.
  3. Part 3: Practice mindfulness by taking a much more nuanced look and exploring how it contributes to acceptance of yourself and your circumstances.

We all carry a set of beliefs, consciously and unconsciously, about how things should operate in our lives. Oftentimes, what prevents us from being compassionate towards ourselves is the judge within us constantly issuing verdicts on whether we’ve done the right thing, based on a set of rules we’ve made up or inherited from our society or family.

Some of us plan our lives based on a strict timeline: we expect to figure out what to do with our career before we finish university. And if not, we try to give it another go by attending grad school. When we finally figure out what we want to do, if it turns out that we are “too old” for it, we may decide that it’s too late, too “selfish”, and too “unrealistic” to pursue our dreams later in life. Our expectations abound in other realms in life as well: how we ought to be loved, how fast we ought to be promoted, how our kids need to be raised…

It’s perfectly acceptable to have expectations. They provide us with direction, standards, things to strive for, but they should be held “lightly”. When we don’t live up to our expectations, the self-compassionate way is to start questioning the validity of the paradigm we subscribe to and shift it before we start to judge or blame ourselves. Here are a few steps I suggest:

  1. Articulate that paradigm. You want to give it a voice, or a story. The story that puts you in agony about not knowing what to do straight out of university could be “I should know by now because everybody else seems to know what they are doing.” The story that prevents you from applying for grad school because of your age could be “There’s no place for career aspirations when you have family obligations”.
  2. Question that paradigm. How true is this story? How kind are you being to yourself? If someone you love says the same thing, would you respond this way to them? What are some different ways of looking at this?
  3. Broaden your horizon and rewrite your story. Our beliefs are often firmly lodged in our psyche, making it hard for us to come up with alternative perspectives. This is when you seek out people who live different lives and hold different beliefs from yours. Who are the late bloomers who didn’t know what they wanted to do until later in life? How did they reconcile their decision with other obligations? Consider discussing your story with a kind and open-minded friend as well. The more people you talk to, the more perspectives you can collect.
  4. Re-goal. Now that you have changed your paradigm, it is important to “lock them in” with a set of goals more aligned with this new belief system so that they can guide your new behaviours. If your new paradigm is to work towards what is meaningful to you, e.g. starting your own business rather than getting a job, your new goals should be about getting yourself ready to start your business.

Tame your saboteurs

When you are trying to articulate your paradigm in step one above, it could be helpful to discover whether there is a pattern to your inner judge’s voice. Imagine little cartoon devils constantly criticizing you and telling you what to do with “you should…” and “you have to…” This free Saboteur Assessment can help you identify what your most common “saboteurs” are among Avoider, Controller, Hyper-achiever, Hyper-rational, Hyper-vigilant, Judge, Pleaser, Restless, Stickler and Victim.

Knowing the patterns of these critical voices can help you develop strategies to tackle them. For example, someone who has the “Avoider” saboteur could carry the view that they need to be a peacemaker. They think conflicts should be avoided at all costs because they are unpleasant and would hurt others’ feelings.

Once you identify your top saboteurs, journaling with the following prompts could loosen the grip your saboteurs have on you:

  • What are the underlying beliefs of this saboteur?
  • Where did it come from?
  • How has it protected you so far?
  • How has it “sabotaged” you, i.e. preventing you from being compassionate to yourself?
  • When this saboteur is dominating you, what do you think you are avoiding?
  • What do you need to let go of to be more compassionate towards yourself?

Remember to regularly update your inner “operating system”

The stories you tell yourself comprise your “inner operating system” — this guides how you respond to your experiences. As your life circumstances change, why not go through a “debugging” process by re-examining what beliefs no longer serve you? Just like your phone and computer go through regular software updates, remember to constantly update the “software” in your mind towards one that is loving and kind towards yourself.

Get in touch

Please reach out to me if you’d like to support on cultivating self-compassion or have questions or comments on the topic.

Related posts on how to cultivate self-compassion:

Storyteller, changemaker, workplace well-being consultant, leadership and flourishing coach with a master in positive psychology, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives. Connect with me here or via LinkedIn.

Originally published at http://iriscai.com on April 17, 2021.

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Iris Cai

Iris Cai

Changemaker, storyteller, & positive psychology nerd, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives.

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