Have you ever heard the phrase, “You are your own worst enemy?” Well, for many people, nothing could be more true. We are often our own worst critic, able to identify our flaws and mistakes well before anyone else. We also tend to think that everyone else can notice these flaws when the truth is, others are busy paying attention to their own perceived imperfections!
Being cruel to yourself not only impacts your emotional health, it also takes a toll on you physically as well. When we are mean to ourselves, the freeze, fight, or flight response kicks in. Our bodies actually think we are in physical danger because we are literally threatening ourselves! When this happens, the stress hormone, cortisol, gets released and causes havoc on our body. Cortisol is responsible for causing or exacerbating at least 60 physical or emotional conditions. Not good.
Dr. Kristin Neff is a psychologist who has studied the art of self-compassion as a way to combat the negative thoughts and critical voice many of us have running on a constant loop in our brain. Dr. Neff believes that self-compassion is even more important than self-esteem. Self-compassion is an active stance that we can use to comfort and soothe ourselves when suffering.
Humans are imperfect. Embrace it.
The first step to self-compassion is to see yourself as someone living their life in the common experience. We tend to think that our suffering is unique. We ask, “Why me?” Well, why not you? We all suffer, we all make mistakes, we all feel pain; these are emotions you cannot escape from-- they are a guarantee in life. What Dr. Neff reminds us is that it is normal to feel pain; it is our shared and common humanity to feel pain. Having the understanding that you are not alone in your suffering helps you to feel more connected to the world and less likely to blame yourself when things go “wrong.” Congratulations, you’re a part of the normal human experience of suffering!
The second step to self-compassion is being mindful and aware of it. You have to be aware of your suffering and pain in order to give it compassion. This can be difficult to enact. When we notice pain, we tend to want to get rid of it right away, but that’s not always possible and not always the best option for our long-term emotional development. This step involves turning towards our pain and being with it, not trying to change it right away. There is an acceptance piece involved in this step. You might not like feeling pain, how could you? BUT, you are accepting that it is a part of your life.
From here, we can then work on the last step, which is actively providing ourselves self-compassion. We are so good at doing this for our friends and loved ones, why do we struggle so hard at doing it for ourselves? Just as we would do with a friend, you start by validating and acknowledging how difficult and painful certain situations in our lives are. Self-compassion isn’t about judging; it’s about being kind and embracing ourselves, flaws and all. It’s about cutting yourself some slack and telling yourself how difficult the situation was and that you did the best you could. Period.
Guess what happens when we are nice to ourselves? Oxytocin gets released! This is the feel good hormone that also helps relieve physical pain as well as emotional pain. Pretty cool, huh? There is a chemical reaction happening in our bodies when we stop being cruel, and start being kind to ourselves.
Practicing the Golden Rule for Ourselves
Self-compassion isn’t a weakness; it’s a source of strength and resilience that we can actively use to get through difficult times in our lives. It’s also an excellent tool to model to those around us. Instead of your kids and partner watching you say mean things about yourself, wouldn’t it be kinder to have them see you give yourself compassion and forgiveness? Wouldn’t you want that for them?
It’s time to turn the Golden Rule to ourselves. We are all worthy of love and kindness. It is not selfish to be loving to ourselves, it is necessary. The more we give to ourselves, the more we are able to give to others. The next time you start beating yourself up for saying something “stupid” at work or making a “mistake,” stop and be a good friend to yourself; you deserve it.