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by Brittney Schrick - June 2, 2017
You have likely heard of the concept of self-esteem, but what about self-compassion?
Although they sound similar, their processes and outcomes are not. Self-esteem is the notion of confidence in your own worth and abilities. People who have high
self-esteem, are confident that they are worthy of success and love, and that they
have unique abilities. While this is certainly a positive way to feel about oneself,
confidence in ability regardless of evidence to the contrary often leads to negative
outcomes such as overconfidence, narcissism, and dips in self-esteem in the face of
failure. (Think of a contestant on a singing competition who is genuinely untalented
but very surprised to find that out.) Self-compassion, on the other hand, is simply the notion that, regardless of success or failure,
you are human and worthy of kindness...even (and especially) from yourself.
Our culture seems to value and expect negative self-talk. We are given many examples
from childhood of someone beating themselves up for a mistake or a failure, and we
often hear criticisms from adults as we grow up. The assumption that often goes with
negative self-talk (and critical parenting) is that it motivates us to do better.
If you tell yourself, "You are such a fat cow!" when you look in the mirror, maybe
you will start exercising more regularly. If you say, "Ugh, you are so stupid! Why
didn't you study??" maybe you'll do better next time. The problem is, that doesn't
really work. Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist who studies self-compassion and motivation,
has found in her research that people do not achieve more or do better when they engage
in negative self-talk. It often has the opposite effect, and it can cause a negative
cycle that is difficult to break.
Without judgement, uncontingent on success, we treat ourselves kindly and with understanding.
We have high standards for ourselves. We want to succeed, and we want to do things
well. We don't like to make mistakes, and it can be difficult to admit it when we
do. So, we are often very harsh with ourselves when we do mess up. What can you do
instead? In moments of difficulty or pain, try treating yourself with encouragement,
sympathy, patience, and gentleness (Neff).
Do you ever feel like no one else would ever make the mistakes you do? Or that someone
else in your life is a much better parent than you are? We like to focus on differences
and uniqueness rather than on commonness and similarity. In reality, everyone (really,
EVERYONE) makes mistakes. In every aspect of life. All the time. They aren't equally
large or exactly the same, but assuming that others wouldn't make the mistake you
just did is isolating. It assumes that you are all alone on an island of mistakes
where no one can understand your pain. But, we are all imperfect. That common imperfection
is very freeing to think about. We all mess up. We are all human.
In order to show compassion to ourselves (or to anyone else), we first have to recognize
that we need it. We need to pay attention to how we speak to ourselves in moments
of stress. Much of our stress could be saved, or at least lessened, if we didn't add
to the stress with constant criticism. Greet those negative moments with support instead
One of the areas we may find the most healing and helpful in using self-compassion
is in parenting. How often do you make a parenting choice that you regret? I know
I make them daily! I was too harsh or too lenient. I yelled or I wasn't firm enough.
I was too rigid or I was too unstructured. It sometimes feels as though nothing is
right. Whatever decision I make, I should have made a different one. I feel confident
that I am not alone in feeling that way (common humanity). In the aftermath of questioning
a parenting decision, I often feel one of two ways: defensive ("Well, what was I suppsed
to do?") or upset ("I'm going to scar them for life! Why did I do that??"). Regardless
of what I did or didn't do to lead to this moment, what I do in the aftermath is often
what I end up regretting more. If I feel guilty about a decision I made, I may overcorrect
by being extra nice or lenient, or I may become short with my children, or I may become
emotional and my kids feel bad for me.
So, what can we as parents do to disrupt this cycle? We can give ourselves a break.
We can respond to ourselves the way we would respond to a friend who had a similar
experience. If a friend told you, "Ugh! I just yelled at the girls, and I feel so
guilty about it!" would you say, "Yeah, you should! I'm perfect and never yell at
anyone. They will definitely be scarred for life"? Or would you hug them and say,
"Wow, I'm sorry. I can tell you feel bad. You'll do better next time!" We are generally
much kinder and more forgiving to friends and family than we are with ourselves. Practicing
self-compassion gives you the room to be human. It offers you the tools to breathe
and say, "Ok, that didn't go as planned. I am really upset that I did that. Breathe.
It's ok that I'm upset. I can do better now."
Not only will you feel better personally, you will begin to notice critical statements
you may make to your children and others in your life. The voice and words you use
to speak to your children become the way they speak to themselves. If you are critical
or unkind, they will be critical and unkind. We often worry far more about how our
children treat others than how they treat themselves. Just because we cannot see or
hear how our children talk to themselves about mistakes or negative emotion doesn't
mean it isn't happening. Treating your child with kindness and compassion doesn't
mean you do not have standards, it just means that you will work toward using kind
and thoughtful ways to communicate with your child. Just like you, your child is a human who is worthy of kindness.
Neff, K. (n.d.) The newest parenting skill: Self-compassion.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. NY:
Self-Compassion.org: This website has lots of information about self-compassion including some exercises
and meditations to help you practice.
Kristin Neff TED Talk: A brief introduction to self-compassion