You know her well, the super judgy one who is always making comments about your career or job, living situation, life partner (or lack of), child-rearing decisions, not having kids, having too many kids, what you do in your free time, or whatever the hell you are doing that she doesn’t seem to approve of.
She makes you feel bad because you're not doing enough, you're not dressed right, your hair looks weird, you're too fat, too ugly, haven't worked out today or this week. She knows each of your deepest insecurities. Her words are harsh, she pushes those buttons that instantly make you feel worthless. You try to ignore her and may have grown numb to her, thinking her intentions are good, that she has your best interest in mind. At times, you actually give her credit for motivating you to get things done! Yet, her relentless comments regarding even the most mundane and small choices throughout your day and her constant unsolicited advice leave you feeling angry, sad and alone.
She makes you question your choices and makes you feel unsafe.
Often times the healthiest choice is to stay away from this person. But, in this case you can't. Because, she is you.
Consider Angela, a vibrant 40-year-old stay-at-home mom who is excited about a new business venture. She's a deeply kind person, involved parent, good wife, supportive friend and a role model for other women in her church and volunteer groups. But, Angela finds herself tired much of the time, anxious and depressed, unable to sleep, suffering digestive problems and generally feeling lost. She is incredibly hard on herself, always thinking and feeling whatever she does is not good enough. Does this sound familiar? Angela and many women like her are wonderful at showing compassion, love and understanding to their husband children, family and friends.
Why is it so difficult to show the same compassion to herself?
Research shows (and we already knew) that women are generally kinder, more nurturing and empathetic to others than men. At the same time, they’re meaner, more dismissive, and critical of themselves. The kudos we tend to receive from the larger culture is other people are more important and we always should be generous and forgiving towards others, first. So we give, and we give, then we turn around and criticize ourselves for still not giving enough. And eventually we crash and burn.
Authors of Reform Your Inner Mean Girl: 7 Steps to Stop Bullying Yourself and Start Loving Yourself, Christine Arylo and Amy Ahlers state:
there is a silent epidemic spreading like wildfire among women—and no one seems to be talking about it. It’s in our boardrooms, classrooms, and living rooms on every continent, and it’s creating depression, stress, and isolation. Who is this culprit? Meet your Inner Mean Girl, the judgmental, critical, and belittling inner bully that almost every woman hears running through her mind on a daily basis. The Inner Mean Girl creates undue anxiety, cajoles you into making bad choices, and then berates you when they don’t work out.
As a counselor, I often highlight how clients are being mean to the most important person in their life, them! The reaction always amazes me. They are genuinely surprised that they should look at having a relationship with themselves. I encourage them to consider using the same kind words, love and wisdom they use with others with this most important person.
However, the idea of showing the same compassion and love to oneself that we show to others is met with the feeling that we are being childish, irresponsible and selfish.
Another recent study showed that participants who were less self-compassionate thought that practicing self-care would negatively impact their performance. They said being kind to themselves after a failure, rejection, or loss would make them feel less conscientious, less ambitious, and less motivated. They also saw self-criticism as “a sign of strength and responsibility.” In other words, they believed being tough on themselves made them tougher, better, and more driven. How did we learn this?
Kristin Neff, a highly respected compassion researcher and author notes:
Self-compassion and self-criticism are both natural tendencies, but they have different evolutionary histories. Self-criticism taps into the threat-defence system, which evolved to help organisms survive. And it’s a double whammy because when we criticise ourselves we are both the attacker and the attacked. Our fight-or-flight response triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which is helpful when we’re running away from crocodiles, but only makes us feel insecure when we’re running away from our inner tyrant.
Self-compassion, in contrast, taps into the care-giving system, which evolved so that mammals could nurture their young rather than leaving them to fend for themselves (and get eaten by those crocodiles).
She identifies and defines self compassion eloquently. Compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
"Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?"
You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.
She goes on to break down the
Three Elements of Self-Compassion:
1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment.
Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.
2. Common humanity vs. Isolation.
Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.
Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.