Imagine a good friend of yours is sitting across the table from you. She got fired from her job today, and is on the verge of tears. It’s clear she could use some kind words.
So naturally, you do what you always do. You take an aggressive tone and say something like: “Yea, well you shouldn’t have been so terrible at your job, but honestly it’s bigger than that, you just plain suck at life.”
WHOA, you’re probably thinking, I would never speak that way to a friend in need.
But what about when you’re the person who just lost a job? Or when it’s you that just destroyed a carton of ice cream (and your diet)? How do you speak to yourself amidst failure and harsh times?
Well, studies suggest that you are probably far rougher on yourself than you are with friends. The research shows that many of us spend an astounding amount of energy beating ourselves up, saying things like “you’re terrible” and “why do you even try.”
But why do we do this to ourselves?
Do we generally look to destructive people when we encounter sorrow, thinking that it will be helpful to get ruthlessly heckled? Does it really bolster our resilience to cut ourselves down even further with harsh criticisms?
The answer is usually no, it’s not helpful. In fact, studies show that people who score higher in self-compassion tend to experience less depression, increased motivation, more optimism, greater happiness, and higher life satisfaction.
Far from being just a bit of hippie dippy new age feel goodery, self-compassion has been shown to improve our health, wealth and happiness. It’s a tremendous performance enhancer and strategy for achieving greater well-being.
So let’s give this self-compassion thing a try.
What Is Self-Compassion?
In order to do the thing we have to have some idea of what the thing is. As a quick definition, it is helpful to think of self-compassion as extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.
But the scientific community has more granular definition of self-compassion that has 3 essential components:
Self-kindness - This aspect is about showing ourselves the same compassionate care that we show our friends. Instead of berating ourselves, self-compassion involves soothing our suffering and showing up as our own inner ally. Basically, treat yourself as you would a cherished family member or friend and you’ll already be moving in the direction of a more self-compassionate lifestyle.
Common humanity - This element is about acknowledging that everyone suffers. Truthfully, tough times are inherent to the human condition and no one escapes it. It may sometimes seem like everyone on Facebook is experiencing never-ending blissful moments, but most of it is a façade. Just look at how many famous people end up in rehab or how many “successful” people report feeling unfulfilled. We’re all imperfect beings, and it’s ok to feel sad, we all feel it whether or not we show it. It’s comforting to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our suffering and that we should not feel isolated by our imperfections.
Mindfulness - If we want to comfort ourselves and do better next time, we need to first acknowledge that we’re suffering or that we did something shitty. It’s ok to make mistakes, but we need to be turn towards our feelings and behaviors if we want to improve.
Our minds can do some impressive gymnastics to repress pain or externalize blame for something we’ve done… Self-compassion encourages us to face ourselves in a less critical way, so we can really change for the better. Management requires awareness, so mindfulness is a necessary component of practicing self-compassion.
So the next time we screw up, there may be a silver lining opportunity - to come to a full stop, become mindful of the pain, acknowledge that everyone is suffering in some way, and offer ourselves some loving kindness. The next time we start beating ourselves up, let’s flip the narrative and be compassionately supportive.
Having a stalwart inner ally is a source of tremendous personal power. When we learn to harness that power, we propel our lives towards greater happiness and success.
Here is a self-compassion exercise used by professor Scott Barry Kaufman for the University of Pennsylvania Introduction to Positive Psychology course. In my year as a TA for this course, many students told me this ranked among the most valuable exercises from the class. It’s wonderful for developing more intentionality around how we treat ourselves. Give it a try!
Bring to mind a recent difficult experience, or some kind of stress or suffering that is present in your life. Write a self-compassion letter to yourself, in the second person, about this experience, using the following guidelines.
Allow yourself to remember the situation or think about your suffering. Then acknowledge your feelings or thoughts, as well as what you were hoping for and needing. E.g., “Dear Kelly, I know that you are feeling [sad/afraid/angry/disappointed in yourself, etc.]. You were really [looking forward to…/trying your best to…, etc.]” Write about both the stress and the core need underneath it: a desire for health, safety, love, appreciation, connection, achievement, etc.
Offer a message of common humanity. [E.g., all humans make mistakes, fail, get angry, experience disappointment, know loss, etc. ].
Now, mentor yourself with some compassionate advice or encouragement. What would you say to a loved one in this situation? Someone you believe in and wanted the best for? After writing the letter, consider reading it out loud to yourself, or putting it away for some time and bringing it out when you need self-compassion.
This letter-writing exercise been shown to provide increases in happiness. When study participants wrote a self-compassionate letter to themselves for seven days in a row, they still experienced increased happiness six months later, when compared to a control group. (Shapira, et al, 2010)”
So, how did it feel? Was it easy? Are you feeling like a fountain of rainbows and sparkles? Wonderful! Was it difficult or did you feel silly at any point? Understandable — many do when they first give it a try. But the repetition of this exercise can be a powerful way to elevate your mood and help you calibrate your self-compassion. Give it a try and see for yourself, you deserve it!
Taylor Kreiss is a Los Angeles based life coach using positive psychology to help individuals and organizations flourish. To connect with Taylor for coaching or to check out some more of his work, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org