For many of us, offering comfort to a struggling loved one is a no brainer. We provide an array of support through kind words, empathy, hugs, a space to vent, giving perspective… the list goes on and on.
But what happens when YOU are the one struggling? Do you readily offer yourself the same kindnesses you extend to others? Or do you quickly fall into a pattern of self-criticism and judgment?
Interestingly, when we’re feeling down and out, we often speak to/about ourselves in ways that we would never speak to/about someone we love. Many of us resort to belittling, blaming, judging, insulting and criticizing ourselves instead of calling on the one thing we need and deserve most.
To illustrate my point, I will do what I often ask my clients to do: I will be vulnerable and transparent, and share my own story with you in hopes that it will inspire you to pursue a journey towards greater self-compassion and acceptance during times of struggle.
After a year-long brutal schedule of working full time, commuting every three weeks to UPenn for grad school and planning my dream wedding, I officially burned out. And I mean BURNED. OUT. I could barely motivate myself to go for a walk on the beach, let alone crank out newsletters and back-to-school marketing campaigns.
Self-doubt and fear—feelings I was once adept at turning into fuel and motivation—left me feeling overwhelmed, alone and stuck. My lack of productivity was a huge blow to my “achiever” identity, and right on cue, the critical self-talk kicked in full force. “You’re not creative enough.” “You’re lazy.” “You’re a hypocrite for coaching clients on motivation and mindset when you’re stuck yourself…”
The irony, of course, is that when my clients, friends and family struggle, I would never dream of criticizing them or kicking them when they’re down. Instead, I instinctively provide empathy, kindness and compassion.
In hindsight, this glaring gap almost seems unimaginable, but alas, it was very real and demanded immediate attention. And so, my personal journey towards self-compassion began.
To get started, I needed to answer some basic questions: what exactly is self-compassion and how does it work?? Dr. Kristen Neff (2012) explains that self-compassion is composed of three main concepts:
- Self-Kindness: “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than flagellating ourselves with self-criticism… We can’t always get what we want. We can’t always be who we want to be. When this reality is accepted with benevolence, we generate positive emotions of kindness and care that help us cope.”
- Common Humanity: “When we notice something about ourselves we don’t like, we irrationally feel like everyone else is perfect and it’s only me who is inadequate… Self- compassion recognizes that life challenges and personal failures are part of being human, an experience we all share. In this way, it helps us to feel less desolate and isolated when we are in pain.”
- Mindfulness: “Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental, receptive mind-state in which thoughts and feelings are observed as they are, without suppressing or denying them.” It requires that we don’t over-identify with negative thoughts or feelings, and creates mental space that allows for greater clarity, perspective, and emotional balance.
WHOAH. Reading this felt like someone had been living in my head and knew exactly how to cure what had been plaguing me.
To be clear, self-compassion is NOT self-pity or self-indulgence. It is a way of relating to our own pain and suffering that ultimately leads to positive outcomes like less anxiety and depression, greater wisdom and emotional intelligence, more happiness, optimism, curiosity, and positive affect. (See reference section)
And so, my practice began and I can safely say that I have arisen from my funk more centered, empowered and optimistic than ever! I still go head-to-head with my inner critic at times, but my regular self-compassion practice has set me up to move through my struggles more quickly and manage my feelings more effectively. I like to think of self-compassion as a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly, or else I risk losing my inner strength.
To that end, here are a few simple strategies that I have used and highly recommend to anyone who struggles with perfectionism, fear of failure, over-achiever-itis, or negative self-talk, but wishes to be more self-compassionate:
- Test how self-compassionate you are! Click on the link to deepen your self-awareness around your current habits.
- Read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. Just do it. Now.
- Meditate. Guided self-compassion meditations are an easy, accessible resource for quieting the inner critic. There are tons of free downloads, Apps and Podcasts to explore—find one that is the right length and pace for you.
- Try out some of Dr. Neff’s 8 Self-Compassion Exercises. You won’t be sorry. Click the link!
Here’s to the pursuit of the compassionate comeback, and the lifelong practice of self-compassion!
Neff, K. D. (2003). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.
Neff, K. D. (2009). Self-Compassion. In M. R. Leary & R. H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior, (561-573). Guilford Press.
Neff, K. D. (2012). The science of self-compassion. In C. Germer & R. Siegel (Eds.), Compassion and Wisdom in Psychotherapy, (79-92). New York: Guilford Press.
Neff, K. D., & Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 908-916.