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Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently. —Henry Ford, founder, Ford Motor Company
WHAT IS SELF-COMPASSION?
Self-compassion is extending compassion to ourselves in moments of pain or failure.
In her TED Talk The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff explains, “Self-compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.”
As someone who thrives on getting things done, I used to think being kind to myself would make me underperform. Until I tried it myself, I had no idea that being kind to ourselves makes us more motivated, not less.
There are many well-researched tools we can use to invoke more self-compassion in our lives. One tool is writing a letter to ourselves for times when we are struggling to treat ourselves kindly. It is powerful to read in our own handwriting, words of self-love and understanding when we don’t want to give ourselves either.
Another tool for developing self-compassion is keeping a positive mantra close to our hearts. A mantra is a phrase we can repeat to ourselves frequently to help us stay focused on what we want; we can repeat the phrase to ourselves anytime self-hate rears its head.
When I first began struggling with my mental health, I tried to picture the version of me that was years down the road, who had already overcome the challenges I was facing. I liked to think that my future self could see me and believed in me. My mantra became, “She’s rooting for you.” In moments when we lacked self-compassion, mantras can comfort us.
Developing self-compassion will enable us to extend that same compassion to others. In my experience, the most critical tool to master is talking to ourselves the way we talk to a good friend.
HOW WE TALK TO A FRIEND
Talking to ourselves how we talk to a friend takes intention. When self-defeating thoughts invade our mind, we can choose to respond the way we would to a buddy. For example, if we have the thought,
“I’m a bad person,” we can change it to “I made a mistake and that’s okay.” Talking back to our negative thoughts becomes natural with consistent practice. Compassion, not shaming, inspires change.
A few days ago, I left the stovetop on. My husband walked down the stairs and asked if something was burning; I realized my mistake and turned off the burner. Instead of telling myself I was stupid, I told myself the same truth I would tell a friend: “Everyone makes mistakes and it’s okay. I’ll be more careful next time.” Instead of beating myself up, I resolved to pay closer attention while cooking.
SELF-COMPASSION CREATES HEALING
Hating our bodies is a universal issue. Dieting is a huge industry; there are a lot of men and women who hate themselves for how they look.
When I’m in a group setting and I call myself “fat,” what am I communicating to the other people in that group? The girlfriend next to me, (who is bigger than me) says she should lose a few pounds too. I respond, No way! You look great.
We can guess how that friend might be feeling. If I’m speaking negatively about my body size, what does that say about her bigger body? My lack of self-compassion can leave her feeling insecure. When we speak negatively about ourselves, we invite everyone else in the room to do the same.
On the flip side, when we are positive and accepting of ourselves, we are giving others permission to live with self-love too. Our self-compassion creates a safe space where others are comfortable in their own skin. Within that safe space, people can open up and be vulnerable with us, knowing that compassion is waiting. Practicing self-compassion does wonders to create trusting connections with others.
Exercise is an area that many struggle to practice self-compassion. My workout buddy works hard at it. She’s learned how far to push her body without overexerting it. She knows it’s okay to take a day off when her body is tired. When I told her that I left the gym after five minutes because my muscles were too sore, she congratulated me on listening to my body and giving it the break it needed. She has taught me that exercising with self-compassion does not mean making excuses; it means living with integrity about what your body needs that day. She has inspired me to exercise out of gratitude for my body.
It is with this same self-compassion that we can listen to ourselves and fulfill our own needs.
TAKING CARE OF OUR NEEDS
Seeing ourselves—accepting, forgiving, and loving ourselves, with all our human weaknesses—makes it easier to see others.
Sometimes we put our own needs on the bottom of our to-do list. We want to help others and may even think it is noble to neglect our own needs. While serving others is important, if we consistently place our needs last, we can feel burned out and angry—and that isn’t helpful to anyone.
Taking care of our own needs is one of the best things we can do for the people we love. I try to exercise and read every single morning before my family wakes up. When I do, I have more to give and I tackle my day with confidence and joy.
Will there be times when we need to put someone else’s needs above our own? Yes. Babies need to be fed and work deadlines need to be met. Taking care of our needs doesn’t mean we sluff off responsibility—it means we fill our own cup so we have plenty to extend to others.
As Tara Brach wrote, “Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from the responsibility for our actions. Rather it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.”
SELF-COMPASSION HELPS US SEE
I found Dr. Neff’s research on motivation and happiness astounding.
I love the connection she made between self-compassion and being able to see others. She says, “Where self-esteem asks how am I different than others, self-compassion asks how am I the same as others?
To be human means to be imperfect. We make it so much worse by feeling we’re isolated in our suffering and our imperfection, when in fact that’s precisely what connects us to other people. The more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves, the more we have available to give to others.”
I have seen how the self-hate talk in my head can make me crankier towards my spouse. When I am disappointed in myself that I didn’t get the dishes done, I’m more likely to get mad at Rob for not doing the dishes. When I tell myself it’s okay to take a break from the dishes and relax, I don’t feel angry if Rob’s doing the same. Rob likes it when I’m nice to myself, because that means I’m nicer to him too.
When we stop equating success with how hard we work, we’re more able to take care of both ourselves and others. One of my favorite poems illustrates self-compassion. I first heard it while meditating in a yoga class. The tears fell. Now it has a home in my office.
It is called “She Let Go,” by Safire Rose. Some of my favorite lines read,
Developing self-compassion prepares us to give to others and to receive the love they have to offer in return.
The following was an excerpt from the book I See You, How Compassion and Connection Save Lives by Julie Lee currently on sale at cedarfort.com!