Our attitudes towards life and towards ourselves are very important determinants of our overall wellbeing. And although almost nobody will doubt this, it sometimes seems to be very difficult to influence how we see ourselves or our lives. There are just so many situations, where we can be harsh on ourselves. Just think about all the mistakes we already made in our lives and how our natural reaction was to blame ourselves for that. And even if other people tell us to just change our perspective on a given situation, because eventually everything will be alright and nobody will care about it anymore, this is often easier said than done. Too often, an advice like that is too vague and it does not answer how to stop ruminating or worrying about the mistakes we made or the challenges we currently have to overcome. It might help at the very moment we talk to a friend, but the next time something happens, the thoughts start all over again.
One very specific approach that might help to better deal with self criticism and difficult situations is called self-compassion. It was developed primarily by psychologist Kristin Neff from the University of Texas. As this TED Talk explains, self compassion is about treating ourselves with warmth and understanding, when times are difficult. Even more, it is the realization that making mistakes along with imperfection is a part of being human. Just as we can have compassion with a friend of ours who just lost his or her significant other, we can have compassion with ourselves: self-compassion. Neff operationalized self-compassion as consisting of three-elements: Self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
Self-kindness is about making our interal dialogue more supportive and sympathetic. Instead of harshly criticizing a mistake („And again I failed... Well, I shouldn’t be surprised, since I am born as a failure...“), we should acknowledge our weaknesses and allow ourselves to be imperfect („Well, it didn’t work... But hey, nobody is perfect!“).
The second component of self-compassion is called common humanity and it aims to counteract our tendency to feel isolated with our personal struggle or shortcomings. When things go wrong, we often get the impression that we are the only people having these kinds of difficulties. So many people around us seem to be so gifted and talented, while we are very aware of our own shortcomings. A quote that might be helpful for realizing our common humanity is the following: „Don’t compare your inside to someone else’s outside!“ We cannot possibly know about other people’s shortcomings or struggles as long as they don’t talk about it. The only thing we can know is that they are human beings and that every human being has shortcomings and struggles.
Mindfulness describes a mental state of presence and is the third element of self-compassion. When you are mindful, you are completely absorbed by the present moment. Mindfulness is about experiencing your emotions, your sensations, your thoughts and your environment just as they are – no judgement, no suppression. This helps to put things into perspective and it might also help you to exercise self-kindness.
As with everything in life, self-compassion does not develop overnight. But a kinder approach towards yourself and higher levels of wellbeing might be a payoff worth investing time in. Mindfulness can be trained by meditation or by concentrating on the present moment at hand. There are countless meditation guidelines online, so you would just have to look them up or start with guided meditations on youtube. If you don’t want to meditate, creating a habit of focussing on your breath several times a day might also do the job. With self-kindness and common humanity, developing a mental pattern should be the way to go. When you are about to criticise yourself, try to think about common humanity and self-kindness and make it as specific as possible. Which one of your friends told you recently about a personal problem or a struggle? When did you see someone else not performing at his/her best? How did you think about this person? It is important to practice the elements of self-compassion for some time and to not give up early. It will help eventually, but it takes time to develop it!
And science has shown that self-compassion does not only help us to be kinder to ourselves. It has a variety of other beneficial effects. It helps to deal with negative emotions and it is associated with greater stability of self-worth. Perhaps most surprisingly, self-compassion has been scientifically linked to an increased motivation for self-improvement. In one experiment, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found that study participants who engaged in self-compassion exercises spent more time to study for a vocabulary test than participants who did not exercise self-compassion. Self-compassion does not make people work less on themselves and become lazy. It rather motivates people to do even more in addition to helping them dealing better with negative emotions!
Juliana G. Breines & Serena Chen (2012): “Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38, 1133-1143.
Kristin Neff & Dennis Tirch (2013): “Self-Compassion and ACT. In T. B. Kashdan, J. Ciarrochi (Eds.), Mindfulness, acceptance, and positive psychology: The seven foundations of well-being (pp. 78-106).