Make Change Easy —The Self Compassion Solution 

How you talk to yourself matters.

Make Change Easy. The Self-compassion Solution 

How you talk to yourself matters.

Matt
Apr 14, 2019 • 6 min read
Image credit: Vince Fleming/Unsplash

The thoughts you have — whether they’re abusive and bullying, or constructive and compassionate — can dramatically influence your health and happiness.

Bullying yourself into change is not the most productive way to improve your habits. You might manage to make some changes, but you’re going to waste a lot of energy fighting yourself — and you definitely won’t feel happy in the process.

Self-compassion, not self-punishment, is the secret to staying in shape for good. In fact, It’s the only way to create a healthy relationship with food.

You might think that self-compassion sounds weak, overindulgent, or unscientific. This isn’t wishful thinking or another phoney self-help approach. A growing body of research is showing that being kind to yourself is vital for your wellbeing.

 

What Exactly Is Self Compassion?

Self-compassion is about showing yourself warmth, care and understanding. The same way you would to a close friend you care about. There are three aspects to self compassion:

  • Kindness – Showing yourself unconditional positive regard
  • Common Humanity – Recognising that failure and personal feelings of inadequacy are normal
  • Mindfulness – Observing your thoughts and behaviours like a scientist.

In short, it is about productively responding to the challenges you face in life

I invite you to take part in a quick thought experiment. Think about a friend who is facing a struggling situation. What would you say to them? Imagine your body language and the intention behind your words.

Now think of a recent time when you were struggling; you made a big mistake, a failure, or you felt inadequate. How do you talk to yourself in these situations? What language do you use? What is your intention and tone of voice?

If you’re like most people, you noticed that you tend to be warmer, kinder and more understanding to your friend than to yourself. Being compassionate to yourself doesn’t come naturally. In fact, theres something about self-compassion which feels taboo.

I noticed as I was writing this post that I felt uncomfortable; How will people respond? What will they think of me for writing about this subject? You might feel uneasy about self-compassion too. Our society, at least in the west, doesn’t support being kind to ourselves. In fact, it tends to warn us against self-compassion. You don’t want to be too self-compassionate, right?

Self-compassion might sound weak, overindulgent, or airy-fairy, to you. That’s completely understandable. Let’s talk about these common misconceptions further.

 

But I Need Self-Criticism, Don’t I?

The most common response to personal failure and inadequacy is shame – “I’m such an idiot”. If you stop criticising yourself, you could become complacent after all. What could be more irresponsible than letting yourself off the hook?

Before addressing these points, It’s worth making a distinction clear. Self-compassion is not false positivity. Unlike self-compassion, false positivity — “Just feel good about yourself” — can go too far. I recently read an article about a teenage girl, Ashlyn Blocker, which made this idea clear.

Ashlyn was born with ‘congenital insensitivity to pain’. A condition which inhibits her ability to feel any physical pain. She has burned the flesh off of her palms, ran on a broken ankle and scalded herself – oblivious that anything was wrong. [1]

Another boy with this condition jumped off the roof of his house to impress his friends. He got up, brushed himself off and said ‘I’m fine’. He died a day later from a haemorrhage. Broken bones, scars, and burns are a regular occurrence for those born with this condition. Without the ability to feel pain, they lack the feedback required to prevent injury or death.

Their stories show us the necessity of pain. While uncomfortable, pain acts as a signal that what you’re doing is harmful. Without pain, your actions are left unguided. You can act dangerously without immediate consequence – like Ashlyn touching scalding water.

“Just feel good about yourself” is not the right message. It attempts to mask the emotional pain of unproductive behaviour. Maybe you’re not living up to all that you could be. Why should you feel good about that? Sometimes you need to feel bad now, so you can feel good later.

While pain is important, like positivity, it too can be taken too far. Imagine you are chopping vegetables when you mindlessly slip and suffer a large cut. You wouldn’t enlarge the wound as punishment. The pain has already done its job, you know to pay more attention next time. 

Treating inadequacies with harsh self-criticism is like opening a wound. It doesn’t help you learn and it only makes things worse. Agitating yourself with shame destroys your ability to think clearly. The brain interprets harsh self-criticism as a threat, activating the “fight-flight-freeze” response. [2] You become paralysed. Shut down. Defensive. Criticism makes you act more like a tantruming toddler, than a rational decision maker.

Self-critics often learn to avoid challenging goals because of the possibility of failure. When failure is unacceptable, it’s much easier not to try. Even worse, they lose touch with reality. Self-critics struggle to identify where they can improve, placing the locus of control outside of themselves. Much easier to fix the blame elsewhere, than accept the self-punishment which follows the truth.

What if you could avoid the paralysis of harsh self-criticism, or the feedback distorting effects of false-positivity? Self-compassion allows you to do exactly that.

 

The Power of Self-Compassion

When you treat yourself as if you’re valuable, you can act more effectively in the world. The secret to self-discipline isn’t self-flagellation, it’s having compassion for your future self.

Being kind to yourself means that you want the best for yourself over the long haul. Bad habits may feel good short-term, but the net-effect is negative. Letting yourself loose to do absolutely anything will only borrow happiness from the future. It may feel good right now, but ultimately you will suffer.

Self-compassion brings a mindset shift. Far from being an excuse to overindulge, it allows you to do what is best for your long term happiness. You no longer have to fight yourself to do the things you know you ‘should’. Self-discipline stops being an act of punishment, it becomes self-care.

Don’t take my word for it. Research shows that people with higher levels of self-compassion adopt healthier habits. [3,4] Eating behaviours, exercise, sleep, and stress management are all improved by self-compassion.

As for responsibility, self-compassion strengthens it. When you aren’t terrified of failure, you are more likely to accept the part you played in it. Self-compassion allows you to face up to the difficult feelings of mistakes and failures, without the terror of shame.

Studies have found self-compassionate individuals are more likely to feel guilt than shame.[5] They look at past mistakes with a sense of responsibility and a desire to make amends. When a group was instructed to think about a personal failing with self-compassion, they were less likely to place the blame on outside people or events. [6]

The evidence all points towards one thing:- Self-compassion is not the same as being easy on yourself. It is a way of supporting yourself to reach your full potential.

Acting compassionately to your own shortcomings will not hinder you. It can only make you more motivated, more responsible and more able to grow as a human being.

 

How Can I Become More Self-Compassionate?

Thankfully, you can learn to be more self-compassionate.

The first step is simple:- Give yourself permission to treat yourself kindly.

Watch your thoughts carefully. When you find yourself being overly-harsh, tell yourself “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.”

Step two:- Acknowledge flaws and failures as a natural human experience. When you mess up, remember that you’re not alone. Everyone is imperfect. We’re all fumbling our way through this crazy thing called life.

Step three:- Examine your thoughts and emotions. Try to look at the situation as an outsider. Stop yourself from becoming carried away in negative stories.

Even though self-compassion is about kindness, remember that it is not false-positivity. It is a practice of good will, not good feelings. Don’t try to ignore, or fight, difficult feelings. Accept when your present experience is painful and support yourself with warmth and kindness. When you fail or make a mistake, look at the situation clearly and give yourself constructive feedback. How can you make amends, or improve for the next time?

 

Closing Words

Most of us have a predisposition towards self-loathing and a fear of self-acceptance. If you’re anything like I was a few years ago, there is something about accepting yourself which doesn’t seem right.

Far from being a character flaw, self-compassion is the key to inner strength. Armed with compassion, you can accept your inadequacies and failures. Only then can you work on yourself — not because you feel unworthy — but because you want to live up to the best that you could be.

Life is a lot easier without inner conflict. Practising self-compassion can only make your life happier, healthier and more effortless.