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Day 9 – Understanding self-compassion
Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your close friends and your family? People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others are often surprisingly self-deprecating. They beat themselves up for small failures like being overweight or not exercising.
One way to deal with this overly harsh self-treatment is to be more forgiving with ourselves. And that’s where we enter the realm of self-compassion.
It’s often easier to understand self-compassion when we first understand what it means to have compassion for others. Compassion basically involves three components: When we are compassionate, we first notice another person’s suffering. Then we respond kindly and caringly. And last, we remind them that they are not alone and every human being shares these experiences.
Let’s say you have a close friend who tells you about something that’s wrong in her life. If you have compassion you sense her suffering. You respond kindly and wholeheartedly to this suffering, give support, maybe even a hug. And then, you might tell your friend that she is not alone, that it’s an experience that everyone shares once in a while.
Self-compassion works in pretty much the same way. Rather than beating ourselves up when we don’t stick to a diet or get a bad mark on an important exam, it’s much more beneficial to respond in a self-compassionate way:
First, we need to notice that we are suffering. That can often be harder than we initially think. Because in a difficult or stressful situation we hardly ever take time to step back and recognize how hard it is for us in the moment.
Second, stop judging ourselves and start bringing kindness to ourselves. Often the reason for our suffering is that we judge ourselves too harshly. When we’re self-compassionate we remember that it’s really hard to feel inadequate or ashamed.
And thirdly, remember that suffering and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. Not everything in life is perfect – everyone on earth makes mistakes and experiences negative emotions.
Tal Ben-Shahar, former Harvard professor, gives the example that there are only two kinds of people who do not experience negative emotions. The first group are psychopaths. By definition, they do not experience emotions like shame or embarrassment. And the second group of people who don’t experience negative emotions are dead. So if we look at it from this perspective, it’s good if we experience negative emotions. Because it means that we are still alive and not a psychopath.
Often the initial reaction of many people sounds something like this: ‘Hmm I am not sure about this self-compassion thing. I need to be harsh with myself, otherwise I’ll never make the change.’
But in reality, this deprecating self-criticism is not at all helpful. We are not making ourselves a better person by beating ourselves up all the time. We are just causing ourselves to feel inadequate and insecure while we should be kind and supportive to ourselves when we most need it. Practicing self-compassion has now been researched for over a decade and by now there is a lot of evidence showing it’s a powerful way to open the door to real and lasting happiness.