Self Compassion: The PROVEN Powers of Being Nice to Yourself
I have to admit:
Writing about self-compassion and being nice to oneself doesn’t feel very manly.
My self-doubt aside… turns out being nice to yourself (instead of beating yourself up all the time) is a damn smart idea.
I’ve just finished reading a book on the subject called Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, and I am blown away by the benefits of adopting a compassionate attitude towards oneself.
If you’re someone struggling with harsh self-criticism (or even just average levels of self-criticism), treating yourself in a more self-compassionate way may very well change your life.
Want proof? Read on…
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The Downfalls of Self-Criticism
Most of us are grand champions of self-criticism - we seem to beat ourselves up at every opportunity we get.
Unfortunately, that’s not such a good idea…
“We found that self-criticism was strongly related to depression and dissatisfaction with life.”
“A number of large-scale studies have found that extreme self-critics are much more likely to attempt suicide than others. Feelings of shame and insignificance can lead to a devaluing of oneself to the extent that it even overpowers our most basic and fundamental instinct - the will to stay alive.”
Self-criticism sucks. Not really surprising - intuitively we all know that beating ourselves up all the time isn’t a good thing to do. It feels flat out terrible.
Now studies are proving the detrimental effects harsh self-judgement can have on us. It’s linked with pretty much everything from depression, to anxiety, all the way to a higher likelihood of suicide.
So what about self-compassion?
The Benefits of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion comes with seemingly endless scientifically proven benefits…
“The research that my colleagues and I have conducted over the past decade shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives. By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, difficult as it is, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. At the same time, self-compassion fosters positive mind-states such as happiness and optimism.”
Avoiding destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation? While fostering positive mind-states such as happiness and optimism?
And there’s more… Here are just some additional benefits that were mentioned in the book. With self-compassion:
- It’s easier to forgive other people and yourself
- You’re more optimistic and experience more positive emotions in your life – such as enthusiasm, interest, inspiration, and excitement
- You’re better able to create close, authentic, and mutually supportive friendships
- You experience generally lower cortisol levels and a higher heart rate variability. This translates into greater emotional resiliency, less anxiety, and less depression.
- You feel more motivated, procrastinate less, and are even more likely to achieve your goals.
To understand why self-compassion is so beneficial, it helps to learn what happens in the body when we’re either being self-compassionate or self-critical…
Self-Criticism VS. Self-Compassion: What Actually Happens
It’s super interesting to see the differences between what happens in our bodies during self-compassion or self-criticism.
Self-compassion goes first:
“When we soothe our own pain, we are tapping into the mammalian caregiving system. And one important way the caregiving system works is by triggering the release of oxytocin.”
“Research has shown that increased levels of oxytocin strongly increase feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness and also facilitate the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves. Oxytocin reduces fear and anxiety and can counteract the increased blood pressure and cortisol associated with stress.”
“Oxytocin is released in a variety of social situations, including when a mother breastfeeds her child, when parents interact with their young children, or when someone gives or receives a soft, tender caress. Because thoughts and emotions have the same effect on our bodies whether they’re directed to ourselves or to others, this research suggests that self-compassion may be a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin.”
Okay, so when you’re self-compassionate you’re tapping into the oxytocin system.
This makes you feel calm, safe, warm, and connected. It also reduces fear and anxiety and can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels in stressful situations.
What happens when we’re self-critical?
“Self-criticism appears to have a very different effect on our body. The amygdala is the oldest part of the brain, and is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When we experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered: The amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid a threat. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks - from ourselves or others.”
Self-criticism taps into the fight-or-flight system. The amygdala is sent into overdrive and leads to an increase in blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol. You start feeling stressed out, anxious, and nervous.
This reaction makes total sense because your body and mind think they’re under attack. Which they are... under attack from yourself!
Research shows that the two ways of relating to yourself activate different areas in the brain. Self-criticism tends to activate areas of the brain associated with error processing and problem solving. Self-compassion activates areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and compassion.
In general, the difference is feeling calm, content, trusting, and secure rather than feeling anxious and worried.
What Exactly Is Self-Compassion Anyway?
“As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”
Self-compassion has 3 components:
- Common humanity
Let’s have a closer look at each one of them.
Component #1: Self-Kindness
“Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failings instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war.
But self-kindness involves more than just stopping self-judgment. It involves actively comforting ourselves, responding just as we would to a dear friend in need. It means we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, stopping to say, “This is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?” With self-kindness, we soothe and calm our troubled minds. We make a peace offering of warmth, gentleness, and sympathy from ourselves to ourselves, so that true healing can occur.”
Self-kindness means stopping the constant self-judgment. Stuff like:
“I’m such a loser. Why did I mess this up?! Why can’t I ever do something right?! I will never amount to anything. I hate myself. Fuck my life. Fuck me.”
Self-kindness means developing a more positive self-talk with yourself. You may react to a failure in a way like this:
“It’s okay man. Everybody fucks up from time to time. It’s okay to feel down right now. It’s normal to feel this way. C’mon, let’s pick ourselves up. We’ll make this happen next time.”
Just treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
Be nice to yourself.
Component #2: Common Humanity
“The second fundamental element of self-compassion is recognition of the common human experience. Acknowledgment of the interconnected nature of our lives—indeed of life itself—helps to distinguish self-compassion from mere self-acceptance and self-love. Although self-acceptance and self-love are important, they are incomplete by themselves. They leave out an essential factor—other people. Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means “to suffer with” which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect. Why else would we say “It’s only human” to comfort someone who has made a mistake? Self-compassion honors the fact that all human beings are fallible, that wrong choices and feelings of regret are inevitable, no matter how high and mighty one is. (As the saying goes, a clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.)
When we’re in touch with our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are shared by all. This is what distinguishes self-compassion from self-pity. Whereas self-pity says “poor me,” self-compassion remembers that everyone suffers, and it offers comfort because everyone is human. The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain you feel in difficult times. The triggers are different, the circumstances are different, the degree of pain is different, but the process is the same. You can’t always get what you want. This is true for everyone, even the Rolling Stones.”
Common humanity means realizing that we’re all in this together and that we’re not the only ones feeling a certain way.
Feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, etc. are totally normal and everybody feels this way from time to time.
Nobody is perfect and everyone experiences some emotional turmoil from time to time.
Instead of feeling isolated and like you’re the only loser on the planet … realize that you share this emotional suffering with everyone else on the planet.
Component #3: Mindfulness
“The third key ingredient of self-compassion is mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to the clear seeing and nonjudgmental acceptance of what’s occurring in the present moment. Facing up to reality, in other words. The idea is that we need to see things as they are, no more, no less, in order to respond to our current situation in the most compassionate—and therefore effective—manner.”
Mindfulness involves seeing and accepting the present moment as it is.
It means NOT getting caught up in your thoughts and emotions, but to step back and observe them in a nonjudgmental way.
In recent years tons of studies have come out on the subject of mindfulness - its proven benefits are just ridiculous. If you’re not working on your mindfulness yet, you’re missing out big time.
It takes a lot of practice, but it’s well worth it.
(For more on mindfulness and how to use it to overcome procrastination, check out this article.)
How to Be Self-Compassionate to Yourself in a Moment of Failure or Heart Break
To be self-compassionate, you first have to catch yourself in a moment of suffering.
Maybe you’re feeling a little bit depressed or lonely or sad and are beating yourself up over it. You tell yourself that you shouldn’t feel that way, that you should do something against it, that you’re a loser for feeling this way, or that you’re a wussy, or whatever.
Maybe you just lost a football game in which you missed the crucial penalty. You feel terrible for losing. You feel terrible about yourself for missing the penalty. You maybe tell yourself that it’s all your fault, and that you’re an idiot, and that you should just give up this sport for good.
Maybe you’re angry towards yourself because you didn’t go to the gym as you had planned. Or maybe you fucked up an important exam. Or you’re feeling lonely. Or you’re unsatisfied with the way you look. Or you’re feeling inadequate for whatever reason. Or you’re beating yourself up for procrastinating.
Literally any time you’re not feeling so great, it’s a chance for you to either be self-critical or self-compassionate.
Once you catch yourself in such a moment, start being compassionate to yourself.
Instead of telling yourself you’re a loser for feeling this way --> tell yourself it’s totally okay to feel this way. Everyone feels this way from time to time. Many people would feel just like you if such and such happened to them.
Instead of telling yourself that you’ll never make something out of your life --> tell yourself that this is just a temporary setback, that this is totally normal, that it’s okay to be a little bit upset in this moment, that many people feel just the same way, that you’re on the right path, that you’ll make great things happen if you just keep going.
Instead of telling yourself you shouldn’t feel this way --> tell yourself that everybody feels this way sometimes, that it’s completely normal and okay.
When you’re feeling sad or depressed --> tell yourself that it’s okay to feel this way, that everybody feels this way from time to time, that it’s part of being a human being, that others would feel this way too in your position. Acknowledge that this is a bit of a hard time right now and comfort yourself.
When you’re experiencing negative feelings or are beating yourself up over anything… Start by realizing that it’s okay to feel this way, that other people feel exactly the same way, that it’s normal to be imperfect, that failing and experiencing difficulties in life is inevitable, and that all of us are struggling from time to time.
Also realize that these are just momentary feelings and thoughts. Simply observe them as a compassionate, non-judgmental observer.
You can also try talking to yourself in an understanding, kind, and sympathetic way to comfort yourself. Or you may even give yourself a hug, lay your hands on your heart, or gently touch your arms.
All of this will help you quickly tap into the oxytocin system, change your biochemical experience, make you feel better about yourself, and bring you all the benefits we’ve talked about earlier.
How to Grow Your Base Levels of Self-Compassion
The #1 way to become more self-compassionate is to practice whenever you catch yourself in a moment of suffering (as described in the last section).
Besides that, you can try out exercises and guided meditations specifically designed to increase self-compassion. You find several of them on Kristin Neff’s resource page on self-compassion.org.
What it All Comes Down to: "How Do You Coach Yourself?"
I get it.
If you’re a guy, self-compassion and “being nice to yourself” sounds kind of woo woo, soft, feminine, lame. Certainly not very manly.
However, I suggest leaving those feelings of pride behind…
…because ultimately, it comes down to this:
If you could choose a coach who follows you 24/7 for the rest of your life, what kind of coach would you choose?
Someone who is constantly beating yourself up, telling you that you’re a loser, that you won’t amount to anything, puts you down all the time, makes you feel bad, and rules with a demoralizing whip?
Or a coach that looks out for you, cares for you, understands you, has your best interests in mind, picks you back up when you’re feeling down, reinforces you, believes in you, motivates you, tells you that you’ll make it happen, tells you that you’re already a big success, etc.?
If you want to be a good coach for yourself, self-compassion is the way to go.
3 Reasons Why I Personally Think Self-Compassion Is HUGE
Some random thoughts on why I believe self-compassion is worth it:
- You replace a terrible habit (self-criticism) with a great one (self-compassion). Not only do you get the benefits of eliminating the negative habit, but you simultaneously get the benefits of a powerful new positive habit.
- You don’t rely on outside circumstances anymore. You don’t rely on the mental construct of yourself. You don’t rely on your self-image, on how well you’re doing in this world. Instead you have a friend by your side who’ll always be there supporting you, no matter what happens in the outer world.
- You’re always there. You’re not going anywhere. For the rest of your life you can either choose to be self-compassionate, be happy, enjoy your life, and reach your goals. Or you can choose to be self-critical, beat yourself up, feel anxious and depressed all the time, and NOT reach your goals. The choice is an easy one.
Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts on this.
I believe developing the habit of self-compassion is a real smart move and well worth your time and effort.
Where to Go for More
Here are some places where you can learn more:
- Self-Compassion book by Kristin Neff (that I’ve quoted about a hundred times in this article)
- Self-compassion.org for more general info
- Self-compassion.org/category/exercises/ for practical exercises designed to help you become more self-compassionate
So what's your take on this? Think being nicer to yourself is a good idea? If yes, are you planning on implementing some of the stuff you learned in this article?
Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!
Awesome post, yet again! I love this post and its entirety.
To sum this post up:
Self compassion > self criticism
So many great points and this was an epic read, don’t skip this one people. 🙂
Thx Dustyn! And indeed:
Self compassion > self criticism
So where does “tough love” figure into the mix? Although some folks might see tough love as counter to self-compassion, it can definitely open doors if we maintain intestinal fortitude and discipline – the stoic way…
Heya there, Andy. Tough love and self-compassion are most certainly compatible. Self-compassion is simply about being on your own side. It’s about being a good coach to yourself, tough love included. It’s wanting the best for yourself from a place of warmth, love, and compassion. Wanting the best of yourself involves tough love. Hope that makes sense! 🙂
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