Replacing self-criticism with self-compassion

Most people find that when their minds are absorbed in self-criticism and self-judgment, they have very little bandwidth left over to think about anything other than how poorly they feel about themselves and their lives. Have you ever thought no matter how hard you try, it’s never enough? Do you base your self-worth on your success? When you fail, do you beat yourself up and let it ruin your day?

This is very common. We’re taught that the key to happiness is having high self-esteem. The problem with basing our worth on our self-esteem is that we only feel deserving and valuable when we succeed. We are constantly competing with others (and ourselves) to prove that we’re special, above average, better than, etc. It’s impossible for us all to be “above average” at the same time.

Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, shares in an article titled Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem, and Well-Being:

The emphasis placed on self-esteem in our society has also led to a worrying trend: The narcissism scores of college students have climbed steeply since 1987, with 65% percent of modern-day students scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008). Not coincidentally, students’ average self-esteem level rose by an even greater margin over the same period. Although narcissists have extremely high self-esteem and are quite happy much of the time, they also have inflated, unrealistic conceptions of their own attractiveness, competence, and intelligence, feeling entitled to special treatment (Twenge & Campbell, 2009).

So, what is self-compassion, and how does it help?

Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the care and concern you would give a friend when confronted with personal inadequacies, mistakes, failures, and painful life situations. It consists of three interacting components, each of which has a positive and negative pole:

  • Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment
  • A sense of common humanity vs. Isolation
  • Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

Research suggests self-compassion is strongly related to psychological well-being, personal initiative, motivation, accountability, increased happiness, optimism, and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, neurotic perfectionism, and rumination (Reff, Nude, & Kirkpatrick 2007).

Self-compassion involves self-kindness, which refers to being caring and understanding with oneself rather than harshly judgmental. Instead of attacking or berating oneself for personal shortcomings, the self is offered warmth and unconditional acceptance.

It also includes common humanity. This involves recognizing that humans are imperfect and that all people fail, make mistakes, and have serious life challenges. By remembering that imperfection is part of life, we feel less isolated when we are in pain.

Mindfulness is another important aspect of self-compassion. Mindfulness in the context of self-compassion involves being aware of one’s painful experiences in a balanced way that neither ignores avoids nor exaggerates painful thoughts and emotions.

There’s a common misconception that shifting self-criticism to self-compassion will lower levels of motivation to better oneself. Research indicates the opposite effect. Self-compassionate individuals have less fear of failure and are more likely to try again when they do fail. Tapping into self-compassion by treating yourself with the care and concern you would give to a friend is a great way to overcome shutting down or ruminating during difficult times. It also recognizes common humanity, that all humans suffer. We all experience failure, go through serious challenges in life, and are imperfect.

Here are some common misconceptions related to self-compassion (also known as the five myths of self-compassion):

  • Self-compassion is a form of pity. This is not the case. Practicing compassion for the self and others actually helps one avoid pity. Compassion is about accepting, experiencing, and acknowledging all things that occur, both good and bad.
  • Self-compassion is considered a weakness. Caring for the self and others is actually a strength. Research shows that compassion is a powerful resource for coping with difficult situations and having the resilience to pull through.
  • Self-compassion will make one complacent. We often criticize ourselves for the failures we experience in life, feeling that being kind to ourselves will not give us the motivation we need to succeed in the future. A torrent of shame and criticism may make one work harder in the moment due to fear of failure and punishment, but it will not help build your confidence or give one the support one needs to succeed.
  • Self-compassion is narcissistic and selfish. Self-compassion is not a judgment of the self or others. It is a way of accepting our experiences, whether positive or negative, and knowing that we’re not alone in the feelings we have. Self-esteem keeps us judging and comparing ourselves to others, while compassion helps us relate our experiences to others. Self-compassion helps us through the good and bad times, while self-esteem tears us down when we don’t succeed.

Here is a ~20-minute guided meditation that will help you cultivate compassion for your own stress, difficulties, insecurities, and suffering.

By Kristine Claghorn, Head of Creative Partnerships at the GCC.

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