We’ve all been there. That moment when we feel so defeated, so exposed or so discouraged, like it’s about to swallow us whole. That’s the moment we needed to start with self compassion.
You arrive late to the team meeting, and then your boss asks you to give an update on the project you didn’t know you had been assigned two weeks ago.
To make your seven year-old’s favorite unicorn cake for her birthday party you stay up late following the complicated Pinterest recipe and you get up early to decorate it, just in time to take it to the party–only to hear the cake slide off the seat and land upside down as you hit the brakes to avoid a fender bender.
You are beating yourself up after it becomes obvious (to you, anyway) that you have fallen short again. You don’t measure up to how others are doing–to how beautiful she looks, how successful he is, how bright and well-behaved their child is. As we critique ourselves, underneath all of that we’re thinking some version of “I’m not enough” or “Who I am is just not okay.”
We All Have These Thoughts
At some point beginning in childhood everyone has thoughts like this and the feelings that go with them. According to clinical psychologist and professor Dr. Steven Hayes, developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), “If you really got people to speak honestly, the I’m-not-good-enough story is almost universal.” Similarly, pioneering self-compassion researcher, author, and associate professor Dr. Kristin Neff, says “feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal”.
We have forgotten who we really are: creatures who are as beautiful and worthy of love and belonging as we were the moment we were born, when our parents and every one who saw us adored everything about us–from our oddly shaped heads to our delicately and perfectly formed little toes. Psychologist Tara Brach, author of the book Radical Acceptance: Awakening the Love that Heals Fear and Shame, says we are in the “trance of unworthiness”, not aware of how our thoughts, emotions and bodies have become frozen in a state of not measuring up and a fear of failing. We can never really relax because of the feeling we need to be doing something to be better and to avoid the sense of failure looming right around the corner.
All three of these experts tell personal stories of how they wrestled with these difficult feelings. Each discovered ways to navigate their struggles, and then through their professions they made their discoveries widely accessible. Dr. Steven Hayes helps his clients get in touch with how old they were when they first felt this sense of “not enough”. Then he helps them speak with compassion and care toward this younger self.
Learning Self Compassion
So how do we learn to speak compassionately to ourselves? Or maybe you’re thinking, “Why would I do that, since I don’t deserve it?” I get it. That is exactly how many of us feel who most need self compassion.
Having compassion for oneself is actually just like having compassion for another person. Before we can act with compassion toward someone, we must notice their suffering rather than ignore it. For example, I can’t have compassion for my newly widowed neighbor next door if I ignore her or avoid having any contact with her. Once I see her I can feel compassion for how sad and lonely she must be. Second, we feel compassion when our heart is touched, so that we are moved to respond with warmth, caring and the intention to help the person. Having compassion also means that we reach out with kindness and understanding rather than judgment of the person or his situation. Third, true compassion (rather than mere pity), according to Dr. Neff, “means you realize that suffering, failure and imperfection are part of the shared human experience.” Self compassion has the same three actions, each directed toward oneself.
The first step is to Practice mindfulness. “Mindfulness” is simply noticing what I experience in the present moment–in my environment, body, thoughts and feelings–without judging or evaluating. We cannot ignore our pain or try to get rid of our pain and feel compassion toward it at the same time. So we tune in to the sensations in our bodies, the emotions we are feeling, and the thoughts going through our heads, and we act as a compassionate observer of our own experience. Examples of what I might say to myself are:
- My chest feels tight.
- My heart feels heavy and there’s a lump in my throat.
- I feel humiliated and I wish I could disappear.
- I feel angry and frustrated with myself.
- I am thinking “Why can’t I just do this like everyone else?”
- I am having the thought “What’s wrong with me?!”
Then I say gently to myself, “I am in suffering right now.”
We’re All In This Together
Second, know that you are not alone, as in “We are all in this together.” We need to remind ourselves that going through pain is actually a normal part of being human. Suffering is a normal part of life. We all had imperfect parents or caregivers who, because of their own wounds and fears, were not completely tuned into our emotional needs and relayed a version of the message: You must be a certain way or do things in exactly the right way in order to be completely accepted and loved. So it makes sense many of us struggle with feeling ‘not enough’ at various times in our lives, especially as we go through periods of loss, change or life transition. These are experiences common to all of us as humans. We must choose to “embrace our common humanity”, according to Dr. Neff.
Self Kindness: Heartfulness
Finally, practice self kindness, rather than being our own harshest critic. Tara Brach uses the word “heartfulness” to described the action of coming back to the the present moment, and then holding what we see with tenderness and compassion. She says “you might think of it as two questions: “What is happening right now?” and “Can I be with this and regard it with kindness?“
Heartfulness is noticing that I am in a difficult place of fear, self-judging, or even feeling disgusted with myself, and then lovingly choosing to “regard it with kindness”. To make the leap to acting with love and heartfulness toward ourselves, it can help to imagine how we would feel if we were sitting with our closest friend caught in self judgment and shame. What would we say to our friend? Neff suggests saying things like, “I’m here for you. It’s gonna be okay. I care about you.”
Self Compassion Changes Us
These practices of self compassion do not come easily, and yet as we continue to practice them they change us. Literally. Research by Helen Rockliff and associates showed that when feelings of self compassion were generated through visualization, participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased. Even more compelling, Dr. Neff’s self compassion research showed that “people who are compassionate to themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious, and stressed, and are much more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic about their future. In short, they have better mental health.” As a recovering perfectionist I admit I was surprised when I first learned self compassion makes this much of a difference in a person’s mental health! Now, instead of berating myself when feelings of inadequacy show up that once hijacked me, I give myself a break and choose to practice self compassion. Yes, it can still feel like I’m being too easy on myself, but I can definitely live with feeling a little more joy. How about you?
I help clients learn to treat themselves with kindness and compassion. To learn about the Depression Treatment I offer and how it can help you begin to practice self compassion, click here.