Post No.: 0483
We’re sometimes guilty of self-defeating or self-sabotaging thoughts like ‘why does this always happen to me?’ or ‘why do I keep on doing that?’ We instead need to practise self-compassion to curb these negative patterns of thought, and capitalise on the positives instead of ruminate on the negatives.
‘Self-compassion’ is like self-esteem except without the risk of narcissism, self-righteousness, prejudice or seeing oneself as better than others. With self-compassion, the good feelings don’t depend on being special or meeting idealised goals but depend on self-care. Post No.: 0003 first mentioned its importance on self-care. It steps in when we fall short, get rejected, feel inadequate and when self-esteem fails. It’s about being comfortable with our weaknesses because no one’s perfect – everyone’s in the same boat or has weaknesses of their own – while recognising our own strengths. It’s about being more secure, calm and confident about whom we are.
Self-compassion helps us to practise self-kindness, lessen the impact of our inner critic, recognise our commonalities with others (we’re not alone in what we’ve done or what’s happened to us) and not over-identify with our perceived faults. This may sound platitudinous but may all buffer against depressive symptoms.
It’s specifically something you give to yourself too, as in it’s not dependent on someone else’s validation. You’re in control of feeling good about your self-worth rather than requiring other people’s opinions to feel good about you. Self-compassion sets the emotionally supportive foundation or environment needed for positive, sustainable change and growth – we all need nurturing to flourish.
We can beat ourselves up when things don’t go to plan but that’s likely to be down to hindsight bias – everything appears clearer with the benefit of hindsight. We start to think that it was ‘obvious’ what we could’ve/should’ve done instead of what we did do so that our lives would’ve led to a better outcome. We should take these lessons for the future rather than beat ourselves up over what cannot be changed in the past.
So don’t kick yourself! You’re hardly the only one to have failed or to have been rejected, thus an irrational ‘why me?’ perspective is dysfunctionally narrow. (There might even be more people who you have rejected than have rejected you, or would reject if they ever asked you?!) Others suffer and have suffered too, and have been in the exact same situations or worse, so try to not be so egocentric and self-focused. This shows that self-compassion isn’t about being self-centred but about self-care. Your loss and/or pain isn’t abnormal – nearly everyone feels or has felt this way, so instead of loss or pain being an isolating experience, understand that it’s part of everybody’s common humanity. Instead of endlessly escalating the social comparisons of the differences between you and others – recognise the many more things everybody has in common. Instead of feeling cut off from others for failing, know that you’re in great company! Feel the shared nature, the connection with others, of everybody’s imperfect human condition.
Applying more stress on oneself about something one is already stressed about is counterproductive. It can make us feel isolated, irritable, and may even make us behave like bullies or bitches, cows, grimalkins, swines (why animal names?!) towards others to try to make ourselves feel better – thus it’s unhealthy and socially toxic. Severe acute stress is also counterproductive to change because a ‘fight or flight’ state puts us in a tunnel-visioned frame of mind, such as seeing a false dichotomy between ‘fight or flight’ itself, which means that we can miss other ways to solve the stressful situation. As a result, we’re not as creative and we’re not in an optimum mental state to learn or achieve personal growth. While stressed-out, mental and bodily resources are prioritised for immediate survival rather than growth.
The ‘fight or flight’ response evolved for dealing with immediate survival threats but most stresses in modern life aren’t in reaction to true immediate survival threats – being stuck in a traffic jam isn’t the same as potentially being detected by a fuzzy mamma bear, for instance – thus making this instinctive response maladaptive rather than adaptive in many modern-world contexts. It was also crucially not designed to be chronically activated – chronic stress is thus a major problem that many people experience in modern life. It might even lead to epigenetic effects that put people at a higher risk of disease.
Self-compassion is essentially about treating yourself with the same kindness and support that you or a truly compassionate parent or friend would show to another person in the same situation. We’re often more critical judges of ourselves than others. The goalposts frequently move too – if we do well, we’ll think of others who are better. We berate ourselves for not ‘winning’ in the game of life, forgetting that the winners are those who can contently accept the way they are. We often tell others it’s okay and to try again, yet we don’t tend to say this to ourselves, thus mistakes or failures can paralyse us from trying worthwhile challenges or endeavours again.
So continue to accept yourself even if you fail, as you would still accept a loved one even if they fail. A culture of ‘if one isn’t the best then one is a failure and it isn’t considered worth living’ is harmful to oneself, or alternatively leads to gross self-delusions to protect one’s self-esteem, which is then harmful to society. (Here, such egotistical people never learn because they already think they’re the best. We sometimes over-inflate our own egos and try to put others down in order to feel better than them by comparison. We might temporarily feel better about ourselves if we ignore our flaws and consider ourselves far superior to others, or by believing that our own issues and difficulties are always someone else’s fault – but trying to constantly uphold this desire for positive self-evaluations is like stuffing oneself with sugar just to reach a crash after each high.)
Don’t be afraid of being average at something – it’s better to try new things out than fear failure. This doesn’t mean never striving to improve – it simply means not being afraid of being average. People who are afraid of being average tend to avoid certain activities in case they under-perform when doing them, and for avoiding these activities, they end up guaranteeing their under-performance. The fear of failure often results in not even trying – ‘better to be assumed that one can’t do something or will be rubbish at it than to prove it once and for all’ – but ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’ results in the same outcome of ‘didn’t’ and a lost opportunity.
Being comfortable with being average or even poor is necessary if we’d like to reach mastery because losing and being average is on the path towards mastery and winning – we start at the bottom and no champion in a worthwhile activity has a 100% win record starting from the very first time they tried something. Not many of the greatest inventors succeeded with their first ideas, never mind all of their ideas. No one in history has been perfect or will be perfect so don’t knock yourself down when you’re already down with ‘if only’ thoughts or be hypercritical of ‘what could’ve been’ (especially if you still won or nothing bad happened!)
Success stems from picking yourself up and trying again and again without loss of enthusiasm – this is the essence of resilience. ‘All or nothing’ or perfectionist attitudes are therefore maladaptive. A self-critical voice can drive us to achieve or change but it can be paralysing and therefore less motivating than a self-compassionate voice in the long-term. Self-compassionate people also handle criticism from others better and have less compulsion to be right or to seek petty revenge. They’re therefore more likeable, which has positive social knock-on effects compared to being disliked. It’s often easier to be the self-critic because it’s not the ‘self-critic persona’ that messed up, but we don’t often give the ‘suffering persona’ the time, right care or attention it needs. Harsh self-criticism gives the illusion of control too – we give ourselves the illusion that the perfect life is possible, if only everything goes our way and we never screw up.
Self-critical people who don’t give themselves enough self-compassion might not feel reassured to know that other people fail though. If practising self-compassion doesn’t come easy for us then we might need a different approach, such as validating our own feelings about how difficult our situation is and formulating a plan with others to solve it or move onto something better.
Trying to deny or block what you’re truly feeling inside can lead to depression and ironically a chronic simmering of that pain and rumination just beneath the surface. So recognise that you are in pain in order to be able to give yourself the self-care you need to heal. Have a balanced awareness – neither ignore nor exaggerate the pain you feel. Give yourself some tender loving care first before going into problem-solving mode – get psychologically stable first and acknowledge and validate how difficult the situation is before you try to work out a viable furry way forward, otherwise you might underestimate it. Self-kindness isn’t self-judgement but a desire to alleviate one’s own suffering and being gentle and understanding of oneself. It leads to more mindfulness rather than over-identification or over-analysis.
Self-compassion is still about self-improvement – only when we can accept ourselves as we are and our positions as they are can we see ourselves clearly, regroup and then seek healthy and realistic ways to change ourselves and/or our situations. It’s the opposite of suppressing or denying our true current condition, yet not wallowing in the hatred of our own condition, for which the latter can lead to resignation or a lack of motivation to change. Self-compassion isn’t self-pity, self-victimisation or self-indulgence. Constructive criticism is not harsh or belittling criticism – it logically should build a better person. It’s not about making excuses – it’s okay to mess up, which makes taking responsibility, rather than looking for denial, much easier to do so that one can make a bad thing good. It’s about what’s best for you from this point forward (for we cannot turn back time) – not basking in pity or, say, emotionally eating or skipping work, or being selfish, greedy or lazy.
At the other extreme, motivation isn’t about cracking the whip on yourself like a slave driver. (Fear-based motivation can produce short-term results but positive encouragement and building self-confidence increases motivation and is more sustainable in the long run.) Feeling depressed is the antithesis of feeling motivated anyway. And you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others, otherwise you could also end up taking your frustrations out on others.
In summary, we’re often more harsh on ourselves than on others. Sometimes we’ll give soothing advice to others that we don’t wish to take ourselves, such as acknowledging that something wasn’t our fault. So putting yourself in the position of an external consultant, or good friend or loving relative, and asking yourself what advice you’d give to someone else in the same situation, can be a good way to reason more reasonably and make better decisions for your health.
Now it’s not the case that you must be able to love yourself to be able to love others because some people can love others without loving themselves (such as those who suffer from body dysmorphic disorder) and some people love themselves too much and only use other people for their own ends (such as Machiavellian-type people). So having compassion for others doesn’t guarantee having self-compassion, or vice-versa.
And no one’s saying we ought to be more selfish in life overall – we’re saying put on your own oxygen mask first, for if we’re not in a healthy state ourselves then we won’t be good for anyone else either.