When things go wrong, some of us will be able to support ourselves with warmth and self-compassion. However, many of us tend to do quite the opposite. We beat ourselves up. How did it come to be that we accepted to live our lives burdened with (unconstructive) self-criticism?
As with anything else about the human psyche, the overly criticizing mindset is also a multilayered phenomenon. However, one of the most common causes are the beliefs and values we’ve developed during our childhood.
And, although we still may show compassion to others during their times of need, we fail to do the same when we’re struggling. Strange? This lack of compassion for ourselves has deep-seated roots. And they’re not always entirely logical. For that reason, it’s so difficult to overcome it. However, it can be done: read on to discover six proven ways to develop self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a concept that counteracts the adverse beliefs we have about ourselves. In most cases, whether we’ll be able to comfort ourselves through the tough times gets decided in our childhood. We learn from our parents. Be it through direct or indirect messages we receive, we absorb those ideas. They become blueprints of our future world. Whether your parents were harsh and criticizing, or they were self-destructive and self-criticizing, you probably introjected such an attitude toward yourself into your core.
Be kind to yourself and practise self-compassion
Self-criticism is rife. And it’s a nasty enemy to have. Research has demonstrated over and over again that it’s closely associated with a range of emotional disturbances. Depression, anxiety and eating disorders are merely a few of the consequences of unrealistic negative images people hold about themselves. Even if you don’t develop a mental health disorder, living your life fraught with self-condemnation isn’t the right way. It will make you utterly unhappy, unproductive, and vulnerable.
“Although we may show compassion to others during their times of need, we fail to do the same when we’re struggling. Strange? This lack of compassion for ourselves has deep-seated roots.”
The most vicious aspect of self-criticism is that it mostly occurs out of our conscious awareness. We can access the negative beliefs we have about ourselves, but we rarely do it. Even more seldomly do we question these core ideas. This elusive nature of self-criticism is one more reason why you should wholeheartedly practice self-compassion.
Studies have shown that the ruminating self-loathing doesn’t get resolved with classic self-help cognitive intervention. What is more, it gets even worse. Moreover, those who are depressed as a result of self-criticism also have trouble imagining positive scenes and self-supporting images. In other words, when you’re failing at being self-compassionate, you can’t even imagine a bright future for yourself. So, the cycle continues. Unless you put a stop to it.
Psychologist Kristin Neff was the first to measure self-compassion. She explained that having compassion for oneself means offering self warmth and unconditional acceptance. That doesn’t mean being selfish and egocentric. It does not condone engaging in self-pity or self-indulgence. And, we might add, it doesn’t exclude constructive criticism.
When you're self-compassionate, you recognize the difference between making bad choices and being a thoroughly appalling person. Simply put, when you’re compassionate to yourself, you won’t keep telling yourself all those nasty things you usually do if you’re not. And you won’t stagnate or suffer as a result.
Neff has explained the three components of self-compassion:
Kristin Neff's self-compassion theory © YouTube/Greater Good Science Center
The good news is that self-compassion can be learned. It takes practice, but most good things require some effort. Here are six ways to practice self-compassion in your day-to-day life.
The very first step of self-compassion is to forgive yourself. And keep doing so every day. There's no point in punishing yourself for your past mistakes. What makes sense is learning from them and growing as a person. You will never be flawless and faultless – because no one is. Yet, your most profound worth doesn’t come from being perfect, successful, recognized, famous, or whatever your poison may be. With self-compassion, you’ll learn to allow yourself to be imperfect – and love yourself as such.
The next time you’re about to tell yourself how stupid or incompetent you are, ask yourself: “Would I speak this way to my child (or anyone whom you love dearly)?” You probably wouldn’t. Because you do know how destructive it is. You just need to learn not to be such a molesting “parent” to yourself.
“The very first step of self-compassion is to forgive yourself. There's no point in punishing yourself for your past mistakes. What makes sense is learning from them and growing as a person.”
In most cases, we don’t even repeat the messages we heard from our parents – they weren’t this harsh. What we do incorporate into our self-expectations are our childish interpretations of our parents’ words and values. That’s one more reason for you to revise your beliefs about how you should be.
As it is one of the components of self-compassion, incorporate mindfulness into your life. Be in the present moment, be lovingly kind, and observe the world (both external and internal) without judgment. If you need help mastering the skill, sign up for mindful meditation classes, listen to some mindfulness podcasts, and check out these mindfulness tips. With time, you’ll notice how self-criticizing thoughts come, but they don’t stick and loop in your head anymore.
It’s precisely these thoughts that tend to make us incapable of self-compassion. To regain control, keep an eye on them and bring them to your consciousness. You can keep an automatic thoughts journal in which you’ll note down the original thought and how it made you feel. Then, analyze it to see if it can hold out against logical questioning. Spoiler alert – it can’t.
Self-love and compassion is possible with practice shutterstock/KieferPix
So, replace such thoughts – and your language – with positive, compassionate versions. Once you retrain your mind to go for the affirmation, you’ll notice how much more encouraging and warm you are to yourself – and how much better you feel as a result.
When we suffer, we tend to feel as if we were the only ones who were going through such an ordeal. However, chances are someone somewhere already experienced it (and survived). Learn to recognize that those feelings of disappointment, incompetence, or self-repugnance are shared across the human race. By doing so, it will become easier to overcome obsessing about and being enslaved by them. Instead, learn from your failures and grow as a person.
Finally, we appreciate how difficult it may be to develop self-compassion. Especially for those with a lifelong history of knocking themselves down. It just doesn’t come naturally. So, seek professional support. Reach out to an expert who will work with you until you become wholly and unconditionally self-compassionate.
Developing self-compassion takes time and practice. Yet, this isn’t a reason to give up. After all, your relentless self-criticism also wasn’t built in a day. However, let a simple thought guide you through the process – you’re not a child anymore. You have the power to reassess and change your convictions now.
Be a kind and supportive parent to yourself. Teach your inner child (and your self-criticizing adult) to be compassionate to the person you’re bound to spend your entire life with – yourself.
Main image: shutterstock/HBRH
Stanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.
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