Many people think they need to be tougher on themselves. They look at all the ways they fail to live up to their own expectations and think they don’t deserve self-compassion, that self-compassion is synonymous with self-pity. There’s a tendency to think that the failure to improve is a result of “laziness” or “weakness,” a failure of character.
If only we could yell at ourselves more effectively, we would do the things that we know would make our life better or stop doing the things that make our life worse. How could self compassion work? Being “all nice” to ourselves would just let us off the hook.
But the truth is, though it may seem counter-intuitive, self-compassion is often the vital ingredient before any lasting change can occur.
Self-compassion is a very active process, and it’s a real effort for most of us. It means accepting who we are, accepting the challenges we face and the feelings we have, and how difficult it can be to change. It means being kind to ourselves.
Have you ever had a teacher, coach or mentor who wanted to help you improve but accepted you just the way you are? Someone who didn’t make you feel bad for what you did wrong, but patiently helped you to do better?
If you ever had a person like that in your life, you know that after spending time with them, you felt better – calm, relaxed, creative, empowered, capable of improving at whatever you were struggling with.
But have you ever had a boss who demanded a lot but never offered support, and got angry whenever something wasn’t good enough? We think we should be able to “rise to the challenge” of that kind of situation, but studies show that while some people improve their performance in that environment, far more people respond by hiding their mistakes, working less creatively and productively, having more headaches and getting sick more often.
The same principles apply in your relationship to yourself. Chronically looking at all of your faults sets the stage for a stress reaction that leads to anxiety, fatigue, defensiveness and more lapses in judgment.
But listening to yourself with compassion, accepting feelings that you don’t think you should have, understanding the parts of you that resist change and controlling the impulse to criticize yourself set the stage for feeling calmer, more relaxed and more able to move forward.
But what do you do when you’re feeling so frustrated with yourself that you can’t be compassionate? At those moments it’s important to realize that your self-critical side isn’t “bad.” It only wants the best for you. It’s just going about it the wrong way.
See if you can be kind both to the part of you that wants you to do better (and feels frustrated) and the part of you that you think has “failed.” Both parts need and deserve compassion.
The more you treat yourself kindly, the more you create the optimum physiological conditions for change. Paradoxically, “self-acceptance” and “desire for change” are not opposites. They’re complementary.
So treat yourself with kindness and compassion while holding close the change you desire. Accept on faith that whenever you get stuck, there’s a perfectly understandable reason for it. You will not only nurture your self-esteem, you will grow steadily forward from your true inner voice.