How Self-Compassion Can Make a Difference
Experts estimate that we think anywhere from 50,000-80,000 thoughts per day. Some of these are random comments about what is happening in the past, present, or potential future. Some can be neutral – ‘I’m tired,’ ‘It’s cloudy,’ or ‘Where did I put my keys?’ Other times the thoughts are judgmental – like an inner critic: ‘that billboard is so ugly,’ ‘I’m getting old,’ or ‘I said something stupid-what’s wrong with me?’
What’s the impact of the inner critic?
We all have preferences and opinions about things. However, self-criticism triggers our stress response. Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system (stress) has been shown to have a detrimental effect on health. In other words, a habit of being inwardly critical can make us physically sick. This may sound daunting – we cannot control our thoughts, but if we notice what is happening inside, we can catch ourselves being mean and change course toward kindness. Being kind to ourselves can help us feel safe and cared for, relaxing our fight-flight-freeze response, and make us stronger.
Imagine feeling overwhelmed, scared or sad. How does this affect your thoughts? Breathing? Muscle tension? Now imagine a friend walking into the room, giving you a hug and listening to your distress, before helping you figure out what you need. How does this affect your body? Mine relaxes.
Don’t we need to be hard with ourselves to achieve our goals?
Discipline is important, but if we consider our overall health, anything done with harshness is better done with loving firmness. The difference can be stark. Imagine someone saying to you: “Stop being so fucking lazy! Get up Now!” vs. “I know you feel tired and want to sleep longer. I get it. And at the same time, you need to be healthy and energized today, so we are getting up and going running. We can do this.” Self-compassion can motivate and support us like a good coach.
What is self-compassion?
According to researcher Kristin Neff, self-compassion is composed of these three core elements: Mindfulness, Kindness, and Common Humanity. Here is how I practice them:
I consider myself in (lifelong) training to stop and notice when I feel urgent or rigid or think looping thoughts. I then turn toward my inner experience instead of away from it. This has proved to be much more difficult than I imagined, however, it is gradually becoming easier. To practice, throughout the day, I periodically ask the question “what am I feeling right now?” and try to filter down to the simplest emotion: sadness, fear, loneliness, anger, disgust, surprise, joy.
Then I acknowledge the emotion and speak to myself with kindness. “You are feeling scared and lonely right now.” The use of the word ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ seems to make a big difference to me. I encourage you to try them both. Tone of voice also matters, even on the inside. I intend to be speaking gently and with compassion, like I would with a child.
The next step is to recognize that my emotion makes sense, that it does not make me bad or wrong and therefore unworthy or unlovable. As social creatures, we are wired to depend on our relationships with others for our survival. Any perceived isolation by the experience of failure or struggle can cause a fight/flight/freeze response. I try some version of this: “I understand why you are feeling this way, and it’s ok. It’s hard to be human sometimes.”
Often these three steps are enough to shift my internal experience of suffering by several degrees. Something inside me softens. I invite you to try it right now. Imagine you are invited to tend to a preteen with big emotions. First you must notice them, name them with kindness and a soft voice, normalize the experience, and possibly set limits. After all, emotions just come and go, we don’t choose them. If we can recognize that it is a normal part of life to make mistakes, fail, and face disappointment, then when we have these experiences, we may perceive ourselves as connected to the rest of humanity. Perfectly imperfect.
To learn more about Shanna LoPresti visit WholeYouTherapy.com or call 415.935.0548