How to bring more self-compassion into your life
We have all got an inner critic. Sometimes it grabs the wheel and won’t let go. But you can become the driver by learning how to attend to your mind, calm down your body’s stress responses and live according to your values. How? There are a range of ways. Here are some that I have found work well.
Meeting your inner critic
We are so conditioned to be critical of ourselves. Particularly women. And there is trillions of dollars riding on this. La Prarie of Switzerland sells an anti-aging face treatment – called Haute-Rejuvenatation Protocol. It’s $2,915 for 24mls. Apart from the price tag, the bad news is that research has shown that when you criticise yourself you are triggering the fight/flight or sympathetic response in your nervous system which sends the stress hormone cortisol into your blood (Kristina Neff).
Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan monk that went to America in the 1970’s said a lot of chaos happens in the world simply because people don’t appreciate themselves. We have a myth in society that we must be hard on ourselves to get things done. But rather than motivating us, self-criticism can shut us down, depress us and even cause us to self-sabotage and not reach for our goals. I remember one morning recently I was planning on heading to the gym. I weighed myself and the scales went in the wrong direction. Instead of a logical response, which would include a usual gym session, the reactive thought was I’m not going now. My inner critic almost dragged me down that day, encouraging me to give up.
Self worth vs Self compassion
If we are in a position to successfully navigate mainstream norms we can gain self-worth, a highly valued quality in society. Self-worth is often associated with self-confidence, competition and comparison. It’s measured by being hard-working, successful at work, attractive and wealthy. But there is a risky element to measuring ourselves against these external expectations. Life is impermanent and it is possible you will lose sporting prowess, your job, your wealth, your motivation, your looks. Research has also shown that comparison to others whom you perceive are doing better can lower your self-esteem. One study showed some individuals who struggle with identity are more prone to comparison on social media platforms, and construct a false-self which increases emotional difficulties (Bergargna and Tartaglia). There are ways we can create a more long-lasting or meaningful happiness.
Many of us would agree that having comfort, pleasure, security and good health brings some happiness. But values are more personal. How important are things like personal freedom, helping others or personal fitness to you? Our values profile helps us understand exactly what makes us unique and gives you a clearer pathway to follow in your life. Values come from within the individual rather than socially acceptable ideas of what we should aspire to. There are online tests to help us understand exactly what our core values are. Acceptance Commitment Therapy is a form of psychology which says values are at the heart of finding happiness.
When we are moving towards our values we are being more self-compassionate or understanding of ourselves and needs. If your core value is family and you are lashing out at your loved ones on a regular basis you are moving away from your values and everyone is unhappy. If your core value is personal development and you are doing 20 hours overtime a week in a stressful job without a moment for yourself. You would not be honouring your values and needs and therefore not being self-compassionate.
Could you carve out a free hour a day? Because once you know your values, you know which direction you need to head in. Nate Terrel in his book `Achieving self-compassion: giving yourself the gifts of happiness and inner peace’ suggests that the happiest people have honed the skill of prioritising their activities so they can spend maximum time doing fulfilling activities. So once you know what you want to do, you can choose to spend time moving towards those values that make you feel fulfilled and happy. Self-awareness gives you the choice to act in different ways. Just being aware is the first liberating step.
The observer and the critic
Developing the ability to be the observer of one’s own thoughts is called metacognition. Terms like mindfulness and awareness have been used to death in recent years but this doesn’t make them any less significant. To really notice what is happening in our mind and body can assist us enormously. If we are not observing what’s happening in our mind, how can we meet the critic and catch those harsh words we might be receiving? How can we recognise when we are acting in alignment with our values and goals or not? If we are not mindful how can we practise a more gentle approach to ourselves? Most importantly we miss the sensations and potential of each moment where the only true happiness can lie.
There are many Mindbody techniques such as yoga, meditation, martial arts and Feldenkrais. These methods ease your body into a physiological state different to the cortisol-fueled fight/flight state. They allow the self-observer to take the driver’s seat. This is an act of self-compassion. By relaxing into your parasympathetic rest/digest state you decrease your stress responses and are more likely to witness the basic goodness in yourself. Philosophies such as Buddhism understand that everyone has basic goodness. If being fundamentally okay within ourselves was more common would fewer people strive for status or wealth to prove self-worth? Perhaps it is the dissatisfied self-critic that causes the high-levels of stress and mental health issues in our society. Taking the drivers’ seat and having the self-awareness to live according to our values can keep our self critic in-check. The knowledge and growth that comes from calmness, self-compassion and self-observation is not something that can be stripped away from us. It is dependable and will help to make your life happier which will filter out to loved ones and maybe further than you think.
What are some ways that you have been self-compassionate to yourself? How has this impacted on your life? It would be great to hear from you in the comments below.
Bergagna, E., & Tartaglia, S. (2018). Self-Esteem, Social Comparison, and Facebook Use. Europe’s journal of psychology, 14(4), 831–845. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v14i4.1592
Russ Harris: ACT Made Simple An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Kristin Neff: The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive 2018
Kristin Neff: Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive Hardcover coming in 28 September 2021
Chogyam Trungpa- Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior 1984
Do the `Pyschology Today Value Profile’ Test – 50 minutes