Why do so many of us struggle to be kind to ourselves? Why can we be loving and understanding to others when they struggle, but can be quite mean to ourselves when facing our own failings?
The answer is often complex – partly it’s our how our brains are ‘wired up’, partly it’s the childhood we had, and partly it’s to do with our emotional state at the time. What matters most though, is that harsh self-criticism really hurts. It makes us feel lonely and separate from others. And it certainly doesn’t help change the very thing we were criticizing ourselves about in the first place. Even worse, beating ourselves up causes measurable signs of physiological stress in the body, with many of the same physical and mental symptoms of distress as would be expected if we were being bullied by another person.
On the other hand, learning to treat ourselves with compassion when we experience painful feelings, like guilt or anger or fear, can be a powerful antidote to our distress. In fact, self-compassion offers many benefits, including reducing our physical and emotional stress and helping us tackle those very weaknesses we most dislike in ourselves. Furthermore, the science shows people who are higher in self-compassion enjoy better relationships with others. Possibly because they are more able to recognise personal failings and to take responsibility for these. Self-compassionate people are also less depressed or anxious, more optimistic and happy and generally cope better with traumatic life circumstances.
And the good news is that learning to be kind to oneself is not something we don’t already know how to do. Most of us have no problem summoning up kindness and care towards a loved one when they are experiencing difficulty. We may just have forgotten how to offer it to ourselves.
So what’s required to be self-compassionate?
First, slow down and notice what’s happening when things are feeling difficult. This means noticing your automatic thoughts (e.g. ‘that’s not fair’, or ‘why are you so stupid?’); feeling the physical sensations in your body (tense, agitated) and acknowledging your current emotional state (perhaps angry? or fearful?).
Second, acknowledge that everyone experiences difficulty in their lives – it’s part of being human. None of us is perfect and none of us live pain-free lives. Even if our Instagram accounts appear to be a series of picture-book moments!
Third, actively and intentionally offer yourself kindness and consider what you truly need in that moment. Perhaps think what you might say to a friend who was going through the same situation. Can you offer yourself the same kind message?
Sounds simple, but it’s not necessarily easy to change patterns of a life time. Self-compassion is a bit like going to the gym; start slowly and gently. It can help to think about the brain as a muscle that can be strengthened and trained just like any other muscle in your body. It gets easier with practice – and the benefits are powerful. Kindness matters, truly.
Words Anna Friis | Image Jade Sayers
About Anna Friis
Anna Friis is a New Zealand-registered health psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of mindfulness and self-compassion. She recently completed a four-year research programme towards a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Health Psychology through the University of Auckland, creating new scientific knowledge of the mental and physical health effects of self-compassion. She was born in Tauranga. Now lives between Auckland and Waihi Beach. She has had a lifelong devotion to yoga and meditation as pathways to health and wellbeing. Together with Waihi-based yoga teacher Megan Troup, she will be offering a series of weekend workshops on mindfulness and self-compassion at Waihi Beach this year.