Self-Compassion: What Is It and Why Is It Important?
I’m probably not the only person to shy away from “being nice” to myself.
I come from a culture where encouragement is rarely given and we’re taught by criticism so this idea of being compassionate to myself was very foreign. We were also taught to be very giving and community was everything so this idea of being good to myself was often interpreted as being selfish.
The concept of self-compassion is derived from Buddhist psychology and focuses on three main concepts:
Treating yourself with kindness rather than harsh criticism
Recognizing that being an imperfect being and encountering difficulties are experiences shared by the human population rather than an individual problem and being able to observe the experience objectively
Acknowledging the existence of your emotions without being consumed by them
How often do we make off-handed comments about ourselves that aren’t too nice?
Comments such as “I’m so stupid”, “I’m so fat”, “I’m so…” get thrown around in our heads like a tenant who has taken up residence in our head without paying rent and we don’t even recognize the harm that it could be causing ourselves.
“Be kind to yourself” is a phrase that we often hear, but what does it really mean? What does it actually mean to be kind to yourself? Personally, I think the bottom line of being kind to yourself is treating yourself with the same level of care and kindness that you would treat others. We should give ourselves the grace we give others, rather than focusing on all of the negative aspects that we see in ourselves.
When we are growing up, we are taught that bullying is not ok and how harmful it is to others, but we often fail to recognize the signs of bullying when it is done to us by ourselves. We would not be ok with others telling us that we’re stupid, fat or whatever negative comments come out of other people’s mouths. So why is it ok for us to be saying these same negative comments to ourselves?
Why is it ok for us to bully ourselves and make our own lives miserable? We’re taught from a young age not to criticize other people unless it is constructive feedback, so why can’t we do the same for ourselves? Telling ourselves that we are stupid is not constructive feedback. Looking at the situation objectively, acknowledging the efforts that you have put in and the emotions that you feel as well as suggesting ways to fix it is constructive feedback.
So why is self-compassion so important, though? Many people argue that they work better with that nasty voice in their heads and it helps to motivate them to work harder, but is that really the case? That sounds awfully similar to the idea that beatings are necessary to keep a child in line and make them ‘good kids’ – and we all know by now that physical discipline does not make kids ‘good’, it just makes them ‘scared’.
Self-compassion requires that we recognize imperfections and struggles as a shared experience rather than an isolated, individual experience. In recognizing that humans in general are not perfect and that encountering difficulties in life is something that many people go through rather than an isolated individual circumstance, we are less likely to blame ourselves for our struggles and more likely to look for ways to grow and learn from the experience.
Now some people may say that this concept of self-compassion just sounds like we are looking for excuses and letting ourselves off the hook for mistakes that we make, but that’s simply not true. In fact, research appears to indicate that people who show more self-compassion are more likely to be willing to take responsibility for their actions and are more likely to consider making amends for whatever it is that they did.
According to a paper published in 2017, researchers in China compared the relationship between self-compassion and their level of acceptance of immoral behaviours. Participants from this study were asked to imagine hypothetical situations where they would be partaking in immoral behaviours such as plagiarizing or keeping money from a wallet they find on the streets, and they were asked to rate how acceptable these behaviours were on a scale of 1-9. The students also completed a self-compassion questionnaire based on the three fundamental concepts of self-compassion we discussed above.
Researchers found that the students with higher self-compassion scores found immoral behaviours to be less acceptable. Of course, this study was based on hypothetical situations, which means that it can’t REALLY prove a correlation between higher self-compassion and high moral standards, so they conducted a second experimental study.
Participants in the second study were asked to partake in a task where they would be allowed to choose between two tasks of different difficulty levels and they were told that the other task would be given to another participant. Those that chose the easier and more fun task were either told to write down one of their own personal weaknesses in a caring and understanding way, or they were told to write down one of their hobbies for the control group. In comparing the results, researchers found that people who showed more self-compassion were less likely to find it fair and acceptable that they chose the easier task for themselves while leaving others with the harder task. These results align with the results from the previous study and appear to indicate that higher levels of self-compassion correlate with higher moral standards and more willingness to accept responsibility for their own moral violations. These results align with past research that found people with higher levels of self-compassion were less likely to fear failure.
Research on the topic of self-compassion around the globe has had similar findings, which suggest that people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds would benefit from practicing self-compassion.
It’s important to recognize that we are more likely to feel comfortable owning up to our mistakes and learning from those experiences if we aren’t so worried about being shamed or criticized. Being more compassionate to ourselves actually helps give clarity to the situation we’re dealing with. We are less likely to let the responsibility slide if we know that being imperfect and experiencing difficulties is part of human experience and we learn to acknowledge the emotions without letting it overwhelm us. So in reality, people who are more compassionate to themselves are probably less likely to let themselves off the hook for things that they feel they have done wrong!
In a way, that critical voice in our heads is trying to do good and help us improve, but similar to how it’s not helpful to smack your kids to discipline them, it’s also not helpful to be harsh and critical to try and promote change. Remember, it’s ok to point out things that we can do better, but we have to do it in a way that is caring and kind rather than harsh and critical. So learn to embrace yourselves, and learn to love yourselves without worrying that you might accidentally be letting yourself off the hook and making yourself more complacent.
For people like me, who aren’t naturally self-compassionate, it’s great to know that there are many exercises for self-compassion that can help build up that habit and allow us to slowly learn to be more compassionate to ourselves.
If you’re looking for help with self-compassion and would like to walk down that road with me, call into the clinic or email us at email@example.com and ask for Renee. I’m ready to help you silence the self-critical voices!