We’re all really good at being hard on ourselves – we do one thing wrong, make one awkward comment or confuse the task assigned and suddenly we’re victim to the worst self-talk imaginable.
“How could you mess that up, it was so simple?”
“That’s the last time you can ever open your mouth in public; what an embarrassing thing to say.”
“Wow, you should’ve just asked for clearer directions — you could’ve avoided all this.”
Why is it that when we make a mistake, we treat ourselves terribly, but we’re so quick to ‘oh-that’s-okay-accidents-happen’ when anyone else messes up? Why do we hold ourselves to an unachievable standard of perfection?
Focusing on self-compassion
There could be a number of reasons we hold ourselves to high standards, like being raised to be the best, wanting to impress everyone around or being afraid of what others may think should we get it wrong. There’s nothing inherently bad about wanting to do the right thing; it’s our internal reaction to not getting it right the first time that might have something wrong with it.
Oftentimes the negative self-talk we enter into comes from a lack of confidence, low self-esteem or questioning of our self-worth. As nice as it would be, it’s not as easy as it sounds to suddenly be more confident or have better self-esteem.
The key, then, is starting with a focus on self-compassion and fostering an attitude of gentleness towards ourselves.
What is self-compassion?
According to author Kristin Neff, “Self-compassion [is] a self-attitude that involves treating oneself with warmth and understanding in difficult times and recognizing that making mistakes is part of being human.”
It involves learning to respond to yourself in the same way you would respond to a friend when they are going through a challenging time or when they make a mistake.
For example – say you are working on a project for your job. You have a deadline to meet, but then suddenly something occurs in your life (like a problem with your car, a complication with finances, a repair situation in your apartment) that takes time away from your day and diverts your attention. You don’t get the project done within the deadline.
For many of us, we might grow disappointed in ourselves and fail to look at the whole situation. We hone in on the fact that we missed the deadline; obviously, we’re the worst employee that the company has ever seen, how are we to show our face in the office tomorrow?
But if this were to happen to any of our coworkers, how understanding would we be? How would we try and help them? Wouldn’t we tell them it’s okay, life happens, just turn in the proposal when you can?
We frequently practice compassion towards others, so compassion itself isn’t a foreign concept. However, when it comes to practicing compassion towards ourselves, it can seem like an impossible task – where do we even start?
How can I practice self-compassion?
There are many different exercises you can put into practice to help cultivate self-compassion.
Take a pause
So you accidentally cut someone off on the road — instead of going into a tirade about how awful a driver you are, pause. What were the surrounding circumstances? Did you forget to check your mirror? Did they come up on you quickly and not give you a chance to respond?
No matter what happened, before you berate yourself, pause. Realize the mistake you made, but don’t speak negatively. What did you do and how can you learn from it? The next time this arises, how will you respond differently? What else is going on in life that kept you from responding the way you’d like? Are there things that have priority in your mind, keeping you from being perfect at all the smaller things that don’t necessarily matter?
The more time you allow yourself to think through these thoughts, the less space you will have for negative self-talk.
Ask yourself, how would I respond to someone else?
We often show more compassion to others than to ourselves. For this reason, it’s important to begin cultivating self-compassion by asking how you’d respond to someone else in this situation. Would you speak harshly or kindly? Would you be understanding, or would you demand better? Would you take the time to realize they probably have lots of other things going on demanding their attention?
However, you would talk to the other, think about talking to yourself in that same way.
What can you learn from this?
Instead of criticizing yourself, the next time you make a mistake ask yourself what you can learn from it. What did you not like about the outcome, and what can you do differently next time to produce a better result? Again, don’t beat yourself up for your mistakes – take it as a learning experience so that you’re better prepared next time and more gentle with yourself in the meantime.
More help with self-compassion
Self-compassion can be tricky or even feel unnatural, especially if you’ve spent years engaged in negative self-talk. Sometimes it’s important to see a counselor in order to get started on the right path if you are finding it difficult to cultivate self-compassion on your own.
To get in touch with someone today, contact The Light Program by calling 610-644-6464.