Self-Compassion: A Choice
It’s been a while, but we’re delighted to welcome Centre therapist Carly Salter back to #ThursdayThoughts. Once again her #TherapistsThoughts piece focusses on our intra-personal relationship – this time she gives us some really good advice on having compassion for ourselves, not just for other people. Let’s be aware of our self-talk!
We would never speak as harshly to someone else, as we so often speak to ourselves.
We would never suggest to a peer, colleague or even an adversary, that they were ‘not good enough’, ‘stupid’, ‘useless’ or ‘worthless’. Yet, how often do we catch ourselves calling ourselves these things, or worse?
Words carry weight. What we say to ourselves, and similarly what we hear from others, can correspond with certain thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This can work both ways; healthily and unhealthily.
Hearing a jibe from the familiar internal-critic of; ‘oh there you go again…’, ‘you can never seem to get things right…’ can be unhelpful and unhealthy. Furthermore, such criticisms can often be unfair and unjustified. Yet at times we can find ourselves repeating these criticisms to ourselves over and over, when we would never even consider saying such to someone else.
The pattern of self-criticism can creep into the most daily of efforts.
It is not a retort reserved exclusively for those bigger moments. Does forgetting to stop in the shops on the way home to buy that tin of tomatoes for tonight’s lasagne really deserve for you to consider yourself ‘stupid’? Is it fair to compare yourself to others who you consider more or greater in their efforts, when you are doing your very best? Would you put up with such criticism if it was communicated via a voice other than your own inner critic? Hopefully not. Yet too often, we can put up with our relentless inner critic for far too long; robbing ourselves of healthy responses and ultimately a sense of mental health and wellbeing.
A vast body of psychological research supports the understanding that fostering a voice of self-compassion rather than self-criticism correlates with a reduction in symptoms of depression and of anxiety.
To choose self-compassion (and it is a choice), releases the tension of unrelenting and unrealistic standards and reminds us that we are human – and that as humans, we are bound to make mistakes and be forgetful from time to time. However, taking responsibility for mistakes made does not need to equate with unjustified, unfair self-criticism. The journey towards self-compassion begins with choice and, like any new practice, is sustained by diligence and consistency in support of the original choice.
In my clinical work, I have found that of those who identify themselves as currently low in self-compassion, many are reluctant to ‘give up’ the voice of self-criticism. Many will link this reluctance to fear; fear that without the internal critical voice, that they may lose their ‘edge’, their drive or motivation. Yet, as we refer once again to a vast body of psychological research, it is universally understood that criticism and punishment, known as negative reinforcement, is inherently discouraging and de-motivating to both the maintenance and change of behaviour.
The voice of self-compassion isn’t a shroud of delusion or falsehood. The voice of self-compassion is grounded on realness, fairness, kindness and balance. Self-compassion means moment-to-moment, day-to-day unconditional acceptance, empathy and non-judgement directed towards yourself, under the knowledge that each moment you have given your best. When (and not if!) you fall, the voice of self-compassion comes alongside and asks ‘are you ok?’ where the voice of self-criticism would say ‘you idiot, why did you fall?’ Self-compassion does not endorse an absence of reflection or of learning from mistakes. Rather, self-compassion chooses to hold off on the reflection of ‘why’ we’ve slipped, until we are back on stable ground.
You may recognise a pattern of critical thoughts and judgements which repeat during certain moments. For you, I wonder what it would look like if next time your voice of self-criticism is running wild, it were to be met and combatted with a voice of self-compassion? What if in that moment, you took a moment to pause and ask yourself ‘what would I say to a friend in this moment?’ before launching a critical barrage on yourself. Dr. Kristin Neff, pioneering self-compassion researcher, author and teacher, explores this further in her accessible and easy to listen to TEDx Talk on the topic of self-compassion versus self-esteem.
In moving from a stance of self-criticism to self-compassion, I have found it helpful to consider self-compassion as a muscle. Like any part of my body, if I desire change, it will take time, practice, effort, energy and motivation to arrive at the change destination. I may see some level of change immediately and some further levels of change may take a bit longer to see. Equally, if a deficiency in self-compassion is recognised, remind yourself that it may take time to move completely from ingrained patterns of self-criticism, but likewise you will experience immediate change by altering your moment-to-moment responses to things going not-quite-to-plan and responding with self-compassion. If there is a struggle in accessing self-compassion, accessing counselling support can guide you in this practice. Oftentimes a strong voice of self-criticism is rooted in adverse life experiences and the impact of dysfunctional relational dynamics, and it may be helpful to explore the origins of this critical voice as well as introducing self-compassion with your counsellor.
But for today – why not make a choice to speak differently to yourself? Or, if you already consider yourself self-compassionate, why not commit to strengthening that voice?
Imagine the ripple effects of self-compassion on your relationships, your work life and, most importantly, on your sense of self, wellbeing and mental health. Choose to be kind and to offer compassion to the one person who you spend the most time with – yourself!