So What Exactly Is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion refers to cutting yourself some slack and this is a relatively new term in psychology circles. As Dr Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas, put it in her latest TedX talk, ‘… Instead of mercilessly judging and criticising yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect? You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable.’
There will be situations in our lives that frustrate us and we dislike. This is a common human experience. But by extending a little grace to ourselves we can learn to continue to move forward without getting stuck in a vicious cycle of shame and self-defeating behaviour.
When I mentioned this to Sarah, she seemed opposed initially to the idea of self-compassion. She was afraid that if she loosened the reins on herself she would, by her own terms, ‘…get even fatter’. But after a little convincing she was courageous enough, and perhaps so frustrated at her own attempts, that she decided to give it a try. By reducing her need to strive for perfection with regards to her eating habits Sarah noticed that she was no longer succumbing to binge eating. She was able to make better choices with regards to her eating without getting stuck in the cycle of deprivation. By reducing her need to strive for perfection with regards to exercise she no longer felt the need to train for two hours every day. This reduction in excessive activity not only reduced the stress levels in her body but she found that she had extra time to spend with her husband and son. Overall, after just a few short months Sarah was a much happier and healthier person. She had stopped focussing on her body weight as a measure of self-worth and had started to focus on other much more important aspects of her life. Namely her relationship with herself and her significant others.
Sarah’s story highlights how important self-compassion is in the process of making positive lifestyle and health changes. However, before you can extend to yourself some compassion it is important to understand what distinguishes self-compassion from other areas of positive psychology.
How to Practise Self-Compassion
Try the following exercise to get the idea of what self-compassion would look like in your own life. Take out a piece of paper and write down answers to the following questions.
1 Firstly, think about a time when a close friend was feeling really bad about themselves or their behaviour. Consider how you responded or would respond to them in this situation. Write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
2 Now think about a recent time when you felt bad about yourself. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
3 Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. Are there any factors or influences that come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
4 Please write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you are suffering. Would you feel more energised to want to move forward, would you feel more positive about your future and your outlook, would you be more self-accepting?