Love and Self-Compassion
Treating ourselves how we would treat a best friend can be a real game-changer for most of us. Of all the things I recommend to others, showing self-compassion is the thing I suggest the most.
After all, who hasn’t spent years beating themselves up for doing or saying the wrong thing, in an attempt to do better next time? For some of us, it’s a habit we’re not even aware of; our inner critic can seem less like a voice inside our head and more like the voice of truth, until someone points out the difference.
But there’s another way; a way to be more resilient, more relaxed, and more effective in our lives. It happens when we extend the compassion we offer to others .. to ourselves.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is a way of meeting our own pain and suffering with gentleness, love and care. It’s about recognising that we’re as entitled to the same love, care and compassion that we can so easily give to others.
It’s about stopping to recognise what we’re feeling - especially when things feel really difficult. And, rather than pushing our feelings down or pretending that things are fine, we take the time to say to ourselves, “Hey, this is TOUGH. Wow. Okay. What can I do to soothe and support myself right now?”
Leading author and researcher on self-compassion, Dr Kristen Neff, has identified three pillars to self-compassion; mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity.
Mindfulness is the first step. Why? Because without awareness, we may not know what we feel. Or we may even try to avoid what we’re feeling, usually through distraction or numbing through food, drink, drugs or other forms of consumption (Netflix binge, anyone?). Being mindful of our experience and being WITH it when we’re hurt, angry, anxious or sad means we can respond thoughtfully rather than react out of habit or avoidance.
Self-kindness may feel self-explanatory. But it can be easier to think about it than to put into practise - especially when we need it the most. If we’re not used to feeling our feelings, it may be tough to know what we need to soothe and accept them. When we’re flooded with emotions the decision-making part of our brain can go offline. This can make it even harder to fully articulate our needs, but we’re still allowed to have them! Self-kindness involves acknowledging those needs - be they a hug, a listening ear, some space etc - and to seek appropriate ways to meet them.
Common Humanity is the final piece of the jigsaw. When we’re feeling self-critical it’s easy to feel that we’re all alone in what we’re feeling. This often comes with a side-order of shame, too; surely no-one else has made such a fool of themselves, has felt so inadequate, so lost, so lonely, so dumb? And yet, the fact that we’re even having these thoughts and feelings is PROOF that we’re not alone; we’re experiencing what it means to be human, with all its highlights and tough times Reminding ourselves that others feel this way, too, helps us to calm our threatened nervous system and reconnects us with those around us.
So, to add it all up: we say the wrong thing. We mess up. We make someone mad, sad or just plain unhappy. Or we feel we’re on the receiving end. We feel some flavour of lousy.
Mindfulness says, “Oh wow, I’m really suffering right now.”
Self-kindness says, “That sucks. What can I do to look after myself in this suffering?”
Common humanity says, “It’s okay to feel like this. Everyone does sometimes. This is part of being human.”
As an example: I’ve had to practise a LOT of self-compassion over the last week, while I’ve been writing this post! I have a chronic illness which affects my energy, pain and stamina levels. My hands and arms have been too weak and too painful for me to sit and write, even with a deadline looming.
So I’ve really had the opportunity to recognise not only my symptoms but my THINKING about my symptoms (“I’m not going to finish my blog post in time!”), and to soothe BOTH types of suffering. Self-kindness has meant listening to my body and prioritising naps and using my remaining strength for making food.
By reaching out and talking to a colleague, I was also reminded that I’m not alone in facing such challenges - and that it’s more important to look after my health!
How does self-compassion differ from self-esteem?
For years, psychologists thought that the best way to help people with low self-esteem was to raise it. On paper, it makes sense: if someone has a deficit, you fix it by increasing what they lack, right?
And over the years, self-help shelves have groaned under the weight of books that promised to help people value themselves, be more confident, and take on the world like a titan.
These are, of course, valid aims. But creating high self-esteem often requires that we compare ourselves to others and to feel we’re better than them. As Kristen Neff points out,
“The main problem is that having high self-esteem requires feeling special and above average. To be called average is considered an insult in our culture. (“How did you like my performance last night?” “It was average.” Ouch!) Of course, it’s logically impossible for every human being on the planet to be above average at the same time.
This need to feel superior results in a process of social comparison in which we continually try to puff ourselves up and put others down (just think of the film Mean Girls and you’ll understand what I’m talking about). Bullies generally have high self-esteem, for instance, since picking on people weaker than themselves is an easy way to boost self-image.
At the same time that we try to see ourselves as better than others, we also tend to eviscerate ourselves with self-criticism when we don’t meet our high standards.
As soon as our feelings of superiority slip — as they inevitably will — our sense of worthiness takes a nose-dive. We swing wildly between overly inflated and overly deflated self-esteem, an emotional roller coaster ride whose end result is often insecurity, anxiety and depression.”
When our self-esteem is tied up with what we DO and can achieve, rather than who we are, we have what’s called contingent self-worth. This means our opinion of ourselves is dependent and conditional on our successes and failures, and on the approval of others. That’s a pretty precarious place to be.
Being compassionate with ourselves means that we’re kind no matter what happens - but especially when we’ve messed up. It’s a more unconditional love we experience. And this means that we’re more able to recover our resilience after perceived failures and losses, as we don’t fear other people’s lack of approval so much - or, more importantly, our own.
So how can we love ourselves more?
Learning to love ourselves can be more of a journey than a destination, and sometimes one that’s a lifetime in the making. Author and speaker David Hamilton wrote his wonderful book I Heart Me: The Science of Self Love after he realised that he’d spent 42 years of his life feeling he ‘wasn’t enough’. According to him there are three stages to self-love;
“Most people spend most of their time in a state of consciousness that says, ‘I’m not good enough’ - or, more simply, ‘I’m not enough’. Many people spend their entire life there. Some do a good job of pretending otherwise, but they’re there just the same.
Others reach a point where they say, ‘I’ve had enough!’ It’s a transition point. It’s usually accompanied by passion and sometimes by anger, especially if these people feel they’ve been taken advantage of or bullied. Despite this, it’s a much better place to be in than ‘I’m not enough’, mostly because these people are less likely to be taken advantage of or bullied ever again.
In time, a lucky few pop out of the other end. They’ve had enough of having had enough. It’s tiring because it takes quite a lot of energy to channel your mind in that way all the time. [They] emerge into quite a restful state, a state of “I am good enough’ or ‘I am enough’. It’s characterized by acceptance and peace, and a lot of laughter is not uncommon.
Life ceases to be stressful, for the most part. Challenges still come along, of course. Challenges are part of being human. But in this state we don’t waste energy trying to maintain a charade or to get people to like or accept us. And it turns out that’s quite a lot of saving on energy for most of us.”
Loving ourselves more starts with recognising where we are on the above scale (mindfulness) and choosing to take caring action (self-kindness), with the reassurance that we’re not alone (common humanity).
Depending on what you need most, loving yourself might be as basic as ensuring that you regularly get a good night’s sleep or healthy meal; creating stronger relationships with the people you love and who are good for you; seeking help from a professional; or simply talking to yourself in the same kind and caring way you would with a friend who’s struggling.
Action for October; Love yourself!
It’s easy to give yourself more love and compassion with just a few tweaks to your existing routine. Here are a couple of ideas, and remember; it’s easier to keep habits if they’re obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.
How can you make self-compassion really obvious to you? Can you add an inspiring or caring message on your phone? Can you stick a note next to your bed, set a recurring reminder in your calendar, or on your bathroom mirror?
How can you make this habit attractive? Can you find ways to give yourself care that really appeal? Perhaps you can take photos of the healthy meals you make for yourself, or start a WhatsApp group with friends to share reminders and support?
How can you make it easy? Can you ‘stack’ a self-compassionate habit with an existing one? For example, can you tell yourself “I love you” every time you see yourself in a mirror? Can you plan your meals in advance, perhaps freezing extra portions so that you have something nutritious to eat on days when you can’t be bothered to cook?
How can you make it satisfying? What difference would being kinder and more accepting of yourself make to your life? What kind of relief might it bring, and what kind of positive ripples might spring from this release of energy?
There are lots of great books available to help you love yourself more. Remember, you’re not alone in this struggle! It’s part of being human. My top picks include;
I Heart Me: the Science of Self-Love by David Hamilton PhD. If you’re stuck for exercises and ways to understand how to love yourself more, David peppers this accessible and heart-warming book with his “Self-Love Gym”, to help you put his findings into practise
Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Your Insecurity Behind by Kristen Neff PhD. A wonderfully honest book by one of the foremost researchers into the healing power of self-compassion.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown. All of Brene Brown’s books are great, but this one in particular is wonderful for addressing why we can be so self-critical; our rejection of our imperfections.
Radical Acceptance: Awakening the Love that Heals Fear and Shame by Tara Brach. A wise and beautiful book that takes love and acceptance towards the self and beyond.