Many people think they need to be tougher on themselves. They look at the way in which they, once again, failed to live up to their own goals and expectations and decide that they need to somehow figure out how to be really, really really hard on themselves.
“I’m way too soft on myself,” they conclude. Surely, if they could just figure out how to yell at themselves more effectively, or maybe send themselves to bed without dinner, they would stop doing the things they shouldn’t do and start doing the things they should.
But what if all of this “tough love” stuff doesn’t work? What if, counter-intuitive though it may seem, the fastest way toward creating lasting positive change involves a huge dose of self-compassion?
At first glance, self-compassion sounds self-indulgent, like making excuses, “coddling” yourself, and letting yourself off the hook. But that’s not what true self-compassion is.
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.