What is self-compassion?

What is self-compassion? by Meagan Mullen, MA, MHC, MEDA Clinician

Most of us are familiar with our inner critic—you know, the voice that seems to pipe up whenever you’ve made a mistake or feel like you’re not good enough. If you struggle with an eating disorder or another mental health issue, you’re probably pretty familiar with this voice!

Sometimes it can be loud and angry, other times it can be a little more covert—almost sweet and persuasive. Getting a good picture of what this voice is like or how you notice it in your own head can be extremely helpful, especially if you’re interested in moving away from it.

Reflection question: how do you notice your inner critic? Does it yell at you? Does it call you names? Take a minute to get an image for that critic.

Enter self-compassion! A great definition of self compassion comes from Dr. Kristen Neff:

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I -comfort and care for myself in this moment?

We all have those moments where we feel inadequate in some way, shape, or form. Unfortunately, our society is one that encourages us to have a harsh environment in our minds. You know the drill, no pain, no gain. We’re taught, growing up, that we should be hard on ourselves if we expect to see change, success, or even growth. But let me ask you this: has beating yourself up all these years actually done you any good?

Sure, some of you might be able to pinpoint a time where you were tough on yourself and did end up finding success of accomplishing a goal. But what if I told you that you can find success, happiness, and all of those amazing things while still offering yourself kindness?

That’s how self-compassion works.

Some people might confuse self-compassion with excuse making or laziness. They might think that if they don’t push themselves, they’d never accomplish anything. But let me make this clear: self-compassion isn’t “I don’t have to try,” it’s “I’m going to try, and if I mess up, that’s okay. I’m human. I can try again.”

Reflection question: Have you ever been able to offer yourself compassion? If yes, how did it feel? If no, has anyone else ever offered you compassion? How did it feel?

Shifting towards this perspective is hard for so many of us, especially if you identify with traits of perfectionism or struggle with mental illness. It can often be helpful to remember that our inner critic is trying to help—as wild as that may seem. That inner critic voice inside of us thinks that if we shame ourselves or beat ourselves up, we’ll stop making those mistakes and finally get it right.

But it doesn’t really work that way. When we’re feeling down, embarrassed, or like we’re struggling, that inner critic (though sometimes well intentioned), doesn’t make us feel any better. That inner critic probably thinks that being so hard on us will help us avoid the pain of failure. But guess what? We still make mistakes, and when that does happen, the inner critic only makes it worse. Here’s another example: think about a young child. If a young child is struggling to learn how to tie their shoes, screaming at them won’t make them learn any faster. Instead, it will create a panic response, incite fear and shame, and ultimately, put more distance between the child and the goal they are trying to accomplish.

Adults are the same, and another quote from Brene Brown helps put it in perspective:

What we don’t need in the midst of struggle Is shame for being human.

Reflection question: what’s someone you can tell yourself the next time you hear that inner critic? How might you respond to it or ask that voice to quiet down?

Changing any type of mindset is difficult, especially if it’s one that you’ve grown used to or have dealt with for a long time. As we take steps to offer ourselves compassion, we must keep the very crux of this blog post in mind. We’ll make mistakes. That inner critic voice might sneak in some days. That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up, just try again tomorrow.