5 myths of self-compassion

5 myths of self-compassion

by Kristin Neff

Most people don’t have any problem with seeing compassion as a thoroughly commendable trait. It seems to refer to an amalgam of unquestionably good qualities—kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, empathy, sympathy, and fellow-feeling, along with an active impulse to help other living creatures, human or animal, in distress. But we seem less sure about self-compassion. For many, it carries the whiff of all those other bad “self” terms: self-pity, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-centered, just plain selfish. Generations removed from Puritan times, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t punishing ourselves for something, we risk moral complacency, runaway egotism, and the sin of false pride.Consider Rachel, a 39-year-old elementary school teacher with two kids and a loving husband. A deeply kind person, devoted wife, involved parent, supportive friend, and dedicated educator, she also finds time to volunteer for two local charities. In short, she appears to be an ideal role model. But Rachel is in therapy because her levels of stress are so high—she’s tired all the time, depressed, unable to sleep. She experiences chronic low-level digestive problems and sometimes—to her horror—snaps at her own kids and even those in her class. Through all this, she’s incredibly hard on herself, always feeling that whatever she’s done isn’t good enough. Like many people, she’d never considered trying to be compassionate to herself. And if she did, the very idea of letting up on her self-attack, of giving herself some kindness and understanding, would strike her as somehow childish and irresponsible.

And Rachel isn’t alone. Many people have misgivings about the idea of self-compassion, perhaps because they don’t really know what it is, much less how to practice it. Often self-compassion is identified with the practice of mindfulness, now as ubiquitous as sushi in the West. Although mindfulness—with its emphasis on being experientially open to and aware of our experience without being swept away by aversive reactivity—is necessary for self-compassion, it leaves out an essential ingredient. What distinguishes self-compassion is that it goes beyond accepting our experience as it is and adds something more—embracing the experiencer (i.e., ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful.

Self-compassion also includes an element of wisdom—recognition of our common humanity. This means accepting the fact that, along with everyone else on the planet, we’re flawed and imperfect individuals who are just as likely as anyone else to be hit by the slings and arrows of outrageous (but perfectly normal) misfortune. This sounds obvious, but it’s funny how easily we forget. We fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well and that when we make a mistake or some difficulty comes along, something must have gone terribly wrong. (Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the “everything will go swimmingly until the day I die” plan. Can I speak to the management please?) The feeling that certain things “shouldn’t” be happening makes us feel both shamed and isolated. At those times, remembering that we aren’t really alone in our suffering—that hardship and struggle are deeply embedded in the human condition—can make a radical difference.  

Fortunately, this approach aligns with an impressive and growing body of research demonstrating that relating to our selves in a kind, friendly manner is essential for emotional wellbeing. Not only does it help us avoid the inevitable consequences of harsh self-judgment—depression, anxiety, and stress—it also engenders a happier and more hopeful approach to life. More pointedly, research proves false many of the common myths about self-compassion that keep us trapped in the prison of relentless self-criticism.

Myth 1: Self-compassion is a form of self-pity

One of the biggest myths about self-compassion is that it means feeling sorry for yourself. In fact, self-compassion is an antidote to self-pity and the tendency to whine about our bad luck. This isn’t because self-compassion allows you to tune out the bad stuff—in fact, it makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness, which paradoxically helps us process and let go of them more fully. Research shows that self-compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self-pitying thoughts about how bad things are. Instead of feeling poor me, there’s the simple recognition that life is difficult for everyone, including me. We can accept our struggle as normal and feel connected to others in our pain, at the same time that we commit to emotionally supporting ourselves. That’s one of the reasons self-compassionate people have better mental health…

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