If you find yourself struggling with the idea and practice of self-compassion, you are not alone.
We often hear of the benefits of self-compassion, research has shown that engaging in it tends to lead to an overall improvement in mental well-being and resilience, improved relationships, physical health and therefore, a resultant improvement in our quality of life. There are also countless articles and books written to guide people to develop a sense of compassion towards themselves. Why then is it still so hard sometimes to fathom being compassionate towards ourselves if we are aware of the benefits and the road map drawn out for us? What are some of the barriers standing in the way of people extending compassion towards themselves?
‘I’m being selfish’
If you have grown up with the messaging that it’s a virtue to put others’ needs before you, you might think that the act of attending compassionately to yourself seems selfish. You might think that it involves neglecting or rejecting the other, that it harms the other and does not result in any positive consequences for the other. How can understanding our limitations kindly and acknowledging our needs possibly benefit the other?
In fact, there are many benefits to the other when we treat ourselves with compassion. It fosters empathy. When we can hold ourselves kindly and seek to understand ourselves, we are more likely to be able to extend that same compassion to others as well. It’s easier to give it when we embody it ourselves. Self-compassion also yields numerous benefits such as reducing our anxiety, stress and improves our overall well-being, when that happens, we free up capacity internally to be able to support and take care of others. Rather than fighting to deny our suffering or pain, acknowledging and soothing ourselves gives us space to connect with the other, and seek to meet our mutual needs in the relationship to foster closer, healthier relationships.
‘It’s a cop-out. I’m giving myself excuses. I don’t have time.’
Some believe that self-compassion means avoiding responsibility for your actions or avoiding facing difficult emotions head-on. Self-compassion appears to be cutting themselves some slack, that it means excusing or justifying behaviours and that is not honourable.
In fact, being compassionate towards yourself is the responsible way forward. While you’re evaluating actions, mistakes or regrets, extending kindness towards yourself gives you more space to redirect the energy you spend preoccupied with the shame and guilt to the actual situation that you want to improve. It is not giving yourself the easy way out, it is building the path to a faster assessment and implementation of positive changes in your life. Self-compassion is not a path of paralysis, it helps you experience warmth and support internally and at the same time, reminding yourself of the inherent value and worth you have as a person, which are important building blocks for you to gain confidence to start effecting changes.
‘Being critical of myself keeps me on my toes and helps me avoid mistakes’
Some steer away from self-compassion because they believe that the opposite of it which is self-criticism is an important tool and motivator that keeps them from making mistakes. They believe that being critical of themselves forces them to be on their toes and vigilant, hence they would be less careless and be able to avoid more mistakes.
In fact, what usually accompanies self-criticism is a sense of shame, a sense of being blamed, which results in anxiety and a desire to hide. It increases stress and when the body is coping with the effects of stress, our vision and concentration tends to narrow, more energy is devoted to managing the anxiety than the task at hand. On the other hand, being compassionate actually allows us to accept that occasional mistakes are part and parcel of life and devote attention to improving the situation rather than emphasizing on the ‘bad feelings’ of the mistakes. Being able to learn from our mistakes and feeling confident moving forward is a much better predictor of task success.
‘I don’t want to pity myself’
Some struggle with the idea of self-compassion thinking that this is pitying themselves and putting them in the position of a victim. They resist self-compassion because they equate it with wallowing in self-pity or victimhood, giving up control and surrendering to the situation.
In fact, being compassionate towards yourself does not mean saying ‘Why did this happen to me? and allow feelings of helplessness to wash over you. Treating yourself with compassion acknowledges your pain and suffering including unleashing the desire to help yourself cope with the adversity and move forward positively. Being compassionate towards yourself is the first step to reclaiming your power and agency.
‘I don’t deserve self-compassion’
Some people have undergone horrific experiences of trauma, abuse and have come to believe that they are unworthy, undeserving of compassion. Repeated experiences of rejection have also taught them that they do not deserve kindness and most often than not, a strong self-critic resides within that constantly bombards them with shame-inducing messages. These are people who not only find it challenging to extend compassion towards themselves, but also find it hard to receive kindness from others. Compassion is a scary and foreign concept.
In fact, it is important to recognize that self-compassion is not something that we have to earn or deserve. Every human deserves to be seen as worthy and cultivate a sense of self-worth and self-love. We are born with the ability to be compassionate and love, but tragically, sometimes life experiences get in the way of us accessing that innate resource.
I strongly encourage you to take some time to reflect and see if this article speaks to where you are regarding self-compassion. I hope that the awareness generates the desire for an alternative experience to access the life energy that self-compassion brings. If you find it difficult to work through the barriers alone, seeking support from a therapist can be helpful.