The world’s leading researcher of self-compassion and founder of the Mindful Self-Compassion program considers–and rebuts–some of the main objections to treating yourself with kindness.
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So yeah, self-compassion, best thing since sliced bread. Why isn’t there more of it? It seems like a good idea, at least I thought so. Why isn’t it more prevalent? And I’ll talk about in Western culture. Although, it’s not just Western culture who suffers.
This is a big one: Confusion with self-pity. And it is annoying to be around people who are lost in self-pity, isn’t it? When we give the gesture of self-pity, it’s also really dramatic, overly dramatic, right? So why isn’t self-compassion, self-pity?
Well, first of all, this common humanity element is absolutely key. I mean, if it was just self-kindness, you might say, what’s the difference?
Self-compassion isn’t “poor me.” Self-compassion is: It’s hard for all of us.
The human experience hard for me, for you, this is the way life is. It’s not ego-centric. Quite the opposite. It’s a much more connected way of relating to yourself. And also, this is why the mindfulness is so important. When we’re mindful of our suffering, we see it as it is, we don’t ignore it, but we also don’t over-exaggerate it. This is a big one that comes up. And part of this is the problem with language. People say, “but don’t we need self-criticism, don’t we need some, like, constructive, healthy criticism?” Yeah, absolutely. I’m not talking about healthy, constructive, kind, supportive, encouraging criticism. I’m talking about harsh, nasty, belittling, you’re worthless, you’re no good type of criticism. That language sounds extreme, but it’s really not. If you actually write down especially on a bad day, some of the things you say to yourself, it can be really shocking how nasty it is. So, that’s the type of criticism I’m talking about that you might say, “negative global self-evaluations” (I am bad, I am no good). So what self-compassion does is it doesn’t evaluate and judge the worth of yourself as a person, but it does see wisely. It discriminates. Self-indulgence, right? A lot of people think, “Well, if I’m compassionate to myself, I’m just going to skip work and just eat tons of ice cream all day and I’m just going to, like, you know…”
Self-compassion doesn’t mean you’re going to do whatever you want, you aren’t going to give pleasure for yourself only because in the long run that harms you. So think of a very compassionate mother. Is she going to, for her child that she absolutely loves and has compassion for, is she going to say, “Yeah, don’t go to school today. You know, just blow it off. Yeah, eat whatever you want, tubs of ice cream, that’s fine!” Of course, not. A compassionate mother says, “Go to bed on time. Eat your vegetables. Do your homework,” right? Because that’s what compassion wants. Health and well-being ourselves. Compassion means we don’t want to suffer. Which means if we give ourselves pleasure, [which] in the short term, feels good, but harms us in the long run, then it’s a problem.
This is also a big one: confusion with making excuses. You know, “I’m only human.” Just blowing things off. And again, you could blow things off and say it’s self-compassion, but is it, really? Because if you really have self-compassion, remember, you are more able to see yourself clearly. It is safer to see yourself clearly and therefore it’s a lot easier for you to take responsibility, because it’s okay to have messed up, to have made a mistake. So research shows you’re more likely to take responsibility for mistakes, because, again, it’s not so psychologically damning to do so. And a lot of people are afraid of compassion. Well, for various reasons. But one of them is they really they need their self-criticism to motivate themselves and keep themselves in the line. It’s a really entrenched belief and I think our culture kind of supports that idea. We need to be hard on ourselves, we need to crack the whip. Think of all the, you know, images we have for motivating ourselves. Often, they’re very harsh.
First of all, I have to say if anyone does take this approach, I’d just like to ask the question, “How’s it working for you?” You know, there’s that level, right? Does self-criticism really help or not? Again, we go to the research and the answer is pretty much it doesn’t really help very much. It kind of helps, but in a way, that’s not that effective.
So what happens when we’re motivating ourselves with self-criticism is the carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot is: I want to feel good about myself. The stick is: I don’t want to feel bad about myself, right? So, that’s how we’re moving ourselves along. It’s really a fear-based type of motivation. I am not okay if I fail, therefore I must try harder and succeed, so I will be okay.
So then the other way to motivate yourself is with self-compassion, not self-criticism. So, self-compassion, there is motivation inherent in self-compassion, but it’s all about wanting health and well-being for yourself and encouraging and supporting yourself to be healthy as opposed to saying, “You are not worthwhile if you fail.” And I’ve got this picture of a father and his son, because I really think it’s a lot easier to understand these concepts when we think about friends or parents or children, and then apply it to ourselves.
So, we’ve got two scenarios, right? One is: a boy comes home from high school with a failing Math grade, and the kid wants to go to college, so this is a problem. So, the old way, actually, back when they used to have the saying, “spare the rod, spoil the child,” would be to harshly punish the kids or even if it’s not done with corporal punishment, a father could say, “You loser. I’m disgusted with you. I’m ashamed. You really blew it, what a screw up.” It kind of cringes, doesn’t it? And sadly, some of us in this room had that experience growing up.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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