The Truth About Self Compassion: It Works & Why

Here’s the challenge. Chances are, you’re going to hate it.

Look in the mirror, into your own eyes, and say, “I love you.”

Are you cringing? Yeah, me too.

I bet some people would rather sky dive than do this.

The first time someone suggested it to me, I nearly spat at her – it’s a good thing we were on the phone – and said, “I don’t need that. It won’t do any good. That’s stupid.”

And I didn’t do it. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror, much less say those cringe-worthy words. Sure, I looked in the mirror… at my complexion, at my eyebrows to see if they needed plucking and at my hair to see what needed to be fixed, but I couldn’t look myself in the eyes. It made me squeamish.

Why is it so hard to be self-compassionate?

I could probably list dozens of reasons why it’s difficult to be self-compassionate, but at the root, self-compassion is not valued by our culture (yet). We live in a competitive culture, one in which evaluating and judging ourselves is reflexive. American, non-indigenous culture, started with a Puritan stiff upper lip. Treating ourselves with kindness seems kind of touchy-feely; that is, feminine, and therefore, “weak.”

Plus, we may confuse self-compassion with self-indulgence, or fear that if we “let up” on ourselves, we will stop performing. Actually, the opposite is true. Not letting up on ourselves can lead to burnout. Learning self-compassion bolsters resilience and performance, while self-criticism strongly correlates with depression and dissatisfaction with life, which do not bolster performance.

Does it matter?

I don’t know whether it matters, specifically, if you can look in the mirror and say, “I love you.” (By the way, I can do it now.)

But, research shows that learning self-compassion is a critical component of resilience and the ability to connect with others. As discussed by Kristin Neff in her book Self-Compassion,

“From the Buddhist point of view, you have to care about yourself before you can really care about other people. If you are continually judging and criticizing yourself while trying to be kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation.” (p. 7)

So, if connecting with others is important to you, then yes, it matters. If being resilient is important to you, then yes, it matters. If avoiding destructive patterns of fear, negativity and isolation is important, then yes, it matters.

The first step in building self-compassion is recognizing that we are currently suffering. In a culture that values stoicism, even this can be difficult. So often, we brush off how we feel or automatically bury it so we don’t even recognize we’re feeling something at all. Or we use any number of things to numb out. Food, TV, alcohol, sleep, drugs…any of these can be a way to numb, and therefore, we may not even recognize that we are suffering.

This brings us to the extra credit “hardest easy” challenge: feel your negative emotion. That means, sit with the emotion and allow it to be in your body without doing something, without trying to fix it or without trying to distract yourself from feeling it. The next time you notice a negative feeling such as anger, frustration, anxiety, whatever, give yourself 90 seconds to go ahead and notice where the emotion shows up in your body and what the physical sensation is. Don’t try to fight it, explain the emotion away, or think of something happier… just breathe and feel. 90 seconds.

Sounds easy, right? So when was the last time you noticed you felt something negative and didn’t try to change it or distract yourself from feeling it? (That’s why it’s extra credit.)

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Portland, OR

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