A common goal for people coming to me for therapy is to have better self-esteem, more confidence, or just to not feel so down on themselves all the time. To improve self-esteem, people are often told to post and read over positive affirmation daily. Here are just a few examples I found with a quick Google search:
“When I breathe, I inhale confidence and exhale timidity”
“I approve of myself and love myself deeply and completely”
“I am worthy of love”
All of these are wonderful statements. However, if you are a person who struggles with issues like depression, shame, or a very harsh Inner Critic, the statements do not ring true. You could probably repeat them to yourself day after day and not believe them one bit more.
Enter self-compassion. The concept and practice of self-compassion is # 1 most life changing tool I have come across in my work as a clinical psychologist. I have seen it completely change the way people relate to themselves, people in their lives, and the world at large. It can help people experience the sense of peace and comfort that they have been looking for.
Self-compassion is experiential, not just aspirational. By that, I mean it is not something to just hope to have; it is something you can feel, experience, and practice the same way you experience compassion for others. Close your eyes for a moment and picture someone in your life that is very dear to you, maybe a friend, spouse, or even a favorite pet. Now imagine that something difficult happened to them. Maybe their mother passed away, or they were unfairly passed over for a promotion, or were in an accident. Picture their face as you sit with them following this bad experience. There, feel that? The kindness and warmth in your heart toward them? The lack of judgment? The desire to take away their pain? That’s compassion.
Now imagine if, when you have thoughts about yourself like, “I am such a loser, I can’t believe I messed that up”, or “I am so fat and disgusting”, you could turn those feelings of compassion toward yourself?
My next several blogs will delve deeper into how to practice self-compassion. But for now, I encourage you to try this little experiment: the next time your Inner Critic says something nasty to you, imagine you just witnessed someone say that exact thing to a loved one. Whatever your natural reaction is for your loved one (anger/indignation, desire to protect them), turn that toward yourself. Show yourself the caring and kindness you would extend to another if they were subjected to that sort of verbal assault. Don’t worry about correcting the painful statement or fixing the feelings that arise from having heard them.
Don’t try to counteract it with a positive statement. Just allow the feelings to be there and honor them. Instead of thinking “No, no, no – you’re not a loser, you’re great”, focus on thoughts like “I can totally get why you’re feeling hurt/angry/sad, I’d feel that way too”. Have compassion and acceptance for whatever feelings you have in response to those cruel words. See what happens.