In my last blog, Why We Self Criticize and What To Do About It, I raised a question about what makes it so difficult for us to extend the same compassion to ourselves that we give to others. So many times, after a client has disclosed a self-critical thought they have toward themselves (i.e. “I am unlovable” or “I am a bad parent”), I have asked them whether they would ever say that to anyone else. Typically people will emphatically say that they would never say such a nasty thing to someone else, yet they consistently have the thought about themselves day after day.
I think part of the answer lies in the messages we get in our society from a very young age. It’s not often that the response to misbehavior is understanding and compassion. Think about it, if a child talks during class or hits their sibling, the typical response is disapproval and punishment. Maybe a time out, maybe loss of a favorite toy, maybe even physical punishment. The message being sent is that you have been bad and therefore must be punished. It’s important to note that the belief that underlies punishment is that people are unable to learn and do better without it. We don’t seem to believe in people enough to think they have an internal desire to do better and grow.
Given that our society tends to believe, it is easy to understand why we are so hard on ourselves. We naturally think that if we “go easy” on ourselves, we’ll never do better. Self-compassion can be scary because it is tempting to buy into the thought that if we have compassion for ourselves, we will never progress beyond where we currently are.
But consider these two situations. Situation one, you are at work and your boss comes in and says in a loud voice, “WELL…I see you messed this report up AGAIN! What’s the matter with you? You can’t do anything right! Do it over!” Situation two, you are at work and your boss comes in and says, “I noticed a few of the same errors in this report that you’ve made in the past. I know it can be tricky so let’s find some time to go over it together and see if we can figure out what the problem is. I want you to feel like you really have a good grasp on it.”
In which situation would you feel more motivated to do better? With the critical boss you may be “motivated” to hustle and try to please in order to keep your job and avoid getting screamed at but there was no support, no offer of tools to help you improve. There was only shame. And personally, I don’t know many people who are motivated or feel inspired by being called names or being shamed. Now, with the compassionate boss you would likely be left with an internal sense of wanting to do better AND you would have access to the tools to do better.
Self-compassion does not mean complacency. Remember, this doesn’t mean you will suddenly always think you’re amazing and all self-critical thoughts disappear. You can have a compassionate internal voice even when those negative thoughts come around. Self-compassion might say, “Wow it is really hard on you when you have those negative automatic thoughts about yourself. They make you feel really sad. I wonder what you might do to start shifting your thinking when they come up”. That’s progress.
Next time, I hope to talk more about practical strategies for beginning to practice self-compassion. It can feel like hard work, but our relationship with ourselves is as important (perhaps more important) as our relationships with other people and deserve as much effort. Take care of yourself.