When a good friend is dealing with some sort of crisis, we are at hand with soothing words, hugs, advice and pep talks. It’s therefore somewhat surprising that a lot of us don’t extend this same kind of help to ourselves when we fall, make a mistake, and are in need of some compassion. Self-compassion – in other words, being your own best friend – doesn’t seem to come naturally to many women.
So why do we lack self-compassion when we have such a great capacity for showing compassion to others? Studies have shown that those who show less self-compassion believe that it would make them weak, less responsible and less ambitious if they were to be kinder to themselves. They’d also be more likely to agree with late American motivational speaker Zig Ziglar who once said “When you are tough on yourself, life is going to be infinitely easier on you.”
Research shows that this statement, however, is not true. In fact, the opposite is – those who show self-compassion are found to be happier, healthier and better able to cope when bad things happen. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind To Yourself and leading compassion researcher, says that people with self-compassion lead more productive lives than those who are self-critical – and the feelings of security and self-worth provided by self-compassion are highly stable.
What exactly is self-compassion? According to Madeeha Afridi, a counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, the term has been at the forefront of mainstream psychology for the past few years, and there are myriad ways to define it. Madeeha says she understands it to be the level of care, understanding, support and empathy we have for ourselves, especially during times that are challenging and painful. “It is easier for most people to accept and validate themselves in times of success and happiness. When a person is going through a difficult time and is struggling, however, how are they able to acknowledge with sensitivity, grace and kindness what they are going through? And are they able to support themselves through the experience?” she asks.
How self-compassionate are you?
Luckily, it is pretty easy to work out how self-compassionate you are. Dr Annie Crookes, head of psychology at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai says that a simple way to assess this is to observe the way you react to difficulty, challenges and painful experiences. She explains how there are questions that you can also ask yourself in order to quickly assess self-compassion, such as: does your mind immediately revert to self-criticism? Do you blame yourself or use this as ‘proof’ for your inadequacies? Do you tend to isolate yourself and feel like no one can help? Do you see upset and hurt as ‘weak’ and try to push past it, dive into work and do everything possible to avoid emotion?
“If any of these are your automatic response then you may need to start showing yourself more compassion,” Dr Crookes believes. Having self-compassion is important, especially during difficult times, and there are many benefits to cultivating this strength within us. Christopher Germer, a clinical psychologist, clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, explains it is important to have self-compassion because it is powerfully linked to better well-being. “Research shows that it is strongly associated with fewer negative states like depression, anxiety, stress, shame and negative body image. It is also linked to more positive states like happiness, life satisfaction, optimism and better physical health. So by wrapping pain in the warm embrace of self-compassion, negative states are alleviated while positive states are generated,” says Germer.
Despite these benefits, it is suggested that many women may have low self-compassion due to factors such as societal expectations and conditioning. Madeeha says that women are playing several different roles in the 21st century, both in and out of the home, which can lead to some taking it upon themselves to ‘be the best’ they can be in all the roles they play. So as some women play these roles and aim for a perfect, unattainable ideal, they forget that there is no ideal to live by and there is no such thing as being the best. “It makes it that much more important to pause, reflect and regularly remind oneself that there’s no race to run or ideals to match. It’s important to know that one is going to thrive the most in life by cultivating an authentic relationship with oneself and to meet themselves where they are at every moment, rather than fighting to meet others and their standards,” she explains.
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that self-compassion is a form of self-pity and that perhaps self-criticism and tough love are better motivators. This, however, is a misconception. Dr Crookes explains how in the same way that much of modern parenting research shows us that corporal punishment such as spanking is not as good a motivator as using positivity and support, self-criticism will only serve to make us feel unable and unworthy, and can lead to helplessness. “By contrast, if you use self-compassion or boost your self-confidence, then when you return to the problem you feel stronger and more able to handle it,” she says.
Some of us are harder on ourselves than others; Germer suggests that if we live in competitive societies we’re probably more likely to have less self-compassion. He says children who are praised when they succeed and punished or disregarded when they fail will not feel loved for who they are. “Self-compassion is learning to love ourselves even when we fail, and provides us with the internal support we need to bounce back and the energy to improve,” he says.
Thankfully, even if we were brought up in an environment where self-compassion wasn’t taught to us, the experts say that we are able to build it up for ourselves. But how easy it for someone to cultivate a greater sense of self-compassion? Germer says that the answer lies in how consistently you want to experience it; you can be self-compassionate even momentarily simply by putting your hand on your heart during a stressful moment, for example. “In order to be compassionate when your life falls apart – when you lose your health, wealth, love and work – self-compassion needs to be a strong habit. It takes time and effort to build new habits, especially emotional ones,” he says.
5 steps towards greater self-compassion
Step one: pay attention to your methods of self-care
Christopher Germer, author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, suggests looking at the things you already do in order to care for yourself. For example, if you’re stressed, do you have a bath? Listen to music? Have a nice cup of tea? Read your book in bed? “When you are having a bad time – when you suffer, fail or feel inadequate – see if you can give yourself these simple acts of kindness,” he says. “Usually, we do the opposite when things go wrong – we blame ourselves, hide in embarrassment, or beat ourselves up.”
Step two: watch your self-talk
At the beginning of your journey with self-compassion, you should take a day or two to observe your thoughts and self-talk. Madeeha Afridi of The LightHouse Arabia explains that this is an important step because your thoughts are guiding your emotions, which are then guiding your actions. For most people, this happens in auto-pilot mode. “What are your thoughts when you are feeling low or down? What are your thoughts when things don’t go as planned or when someone cuts you off on the road? What are your thoughts after a long and exhausting day? Your first step would be to witness and observe the thoughts, as if you are watching them on a movie screen, with gentleness and care,” she explains.
Step three: replace automatic self-criticism with a positive statement
Once you’ve identified any negative self-talk, the next step is to find a way to replace it. Dr Crookes says that an example is if a setback at work makes you think “I cannot do this, others are better at it than me” to replace the thought with “Today I had trouble with this project, everyone makes mistakes, tomorrow I will find a solution or get help.”
She explains how changing the statement from one that criticises you into one that suggests this particular problem was isolated to today means that the judgement isn’t on you and that there are solutions that can be applied. “It can help to have a few of these positive replacements stored in your memory as well, so you can use them as soon as the negative thought comes up. Stock ‘self-help’ phrases like ‘what doesn’t kill you…’ can actually be quite helpful here as they are easy to remember,” she says.
Step four: keep a self-compassion journal
For most of us, self-compassion isn’t a skill that was taught to us during childhood. Madeeha suggests that when we begin to learn and practise self-compassion, we may be required to travel back in time and connect with our inner child. “This enables us to re-parent our younger selves and be more accepting, kinder and gentler with them. One can do this through visualisations or whichever method suits them best,” she says.
Once this practice becomes regular, you can then begin to record the ways in which you were compassionate towards yourself in journal entries, which can have cathartic effects both in the short- and long-term. “Journal entries can be a combination of gratitude and self-compassion writings. An example entry could look like this: ‘I had an extremely tiring day at work today and instead of forcing myself to go out to dinner with my friend when she asked me to, I went for a massage and took it easy for the rest of the evening. I felt good because I tended to my needs with care, and my friend was accepting and understanding of me doing so’,” says Madeeha.
Step five: connect to build compassion
According to Dr Crookes, compassion and self-compassion are linked mental resources, so even self-compassion is fundamentally about feeling connected to others. So by being more proactive in your caring and support for other people, you will build self-compassion.
Dr Crookes suggests making connections with people, helping the community and hugging your friends more. “Anything that fosters a sense of compassion for the people around you will make you see your own negative experiences in the bigger picture,” she says.