Self-compassion is a practice that maybe you’ve never heard of. We hear constant talk about self-care and the vital importance of “filling our own cup” first, before we try to take care of others. It’s become so popular now that there are self-care coaches, self-care subscription boxes (which are awesome – don’t get me wrong!) and countless articles being published about its importance. As moms we’re often quick to neglect ourselves as we strive to be “perfect” mothers. Self-care is in many respects a giant middle finger to the cultural norms that imply we don’t need to eat, shower or sleep while taking care of our children.
Self-esteem is also often on our lips as we talk about what is typically our lack of it. We compare, criticize and scrutinize ourselves as we desperately look for why or how we’re better than others. It’s a painful cycle that all of us get caught up in and it can have a devastating effect on our mental health. Low self-esteem can fuel depression and anxiety. It can also lead us to develop destructive behaviors and thought patterns that harm us and those around us. It feeds perfectionism and sets us up for constant failure because ultimately we’ll never be good enough. There will always be someone or something better.
Self-Compassion In Action
Before we talk about the actual practice of self-compassion, it’s important to define what it is. Dr. Kristin Neff is an internationally renowned expert on self-compassion and according to her self-compassion is treating yourself with the same care and kindness as you would a good friend. It means affording yourself the same grace and understanding you do to others when they make a mistake or are going through a hard time. According to Neff, self-compassion has three main components:
- common humanity
Self-kindness is just as it sounds. When you’re struggling or suffering it’s simply being kind and understanding towards yourself. Rather than telling yourself to “snap out of it” or invalidating your feelings by denying they exist, you make space for them. You allow yourself to sit with them. It may be uncomfortable or feel counter intuitive, but uncomfortable feelings are part of being human.
And this brings us to the concept of shared humanity. We all make mistakes and mess up. Not a single one of us is perfect. As humans we will suffer with feelings of grief, loss, insecurity, anger, disappointment and fear. It’s these shared experiences that bring us together and connect us. When we’re quick to criticize or judge ourselves it can lead to increased isolation. Acknowledging that we’re all in this together can bring about an increased sense of belonging.
Finally, the idea of mindfulness as it relates to self-compassion is the act of observing life as it is. It’s about centering yourself in the present and leaning into whatever pain or discomfort you might be feeling. Mindfulness means that you allow an awareness of your pain to enter into your consciousness. You meet it and sit with it, rather than trying to problem solve your way out of it. Mindfulness won’t necessarily make the pain disappear, but in removing your resistance to it you can decrease suffering.
Benefits of Self-Compassion
According to Neff, the benefits of self-compassion are numerous. Not only does the regular practice of self-compassion move us from being our own worst critics, it has immediate benefits for our emotional resilience. If we can get out of our own heads for long enough to realize that, “I’m not the only one who feels this way”, failures and set backs are less damaging. We can see that everyone will share these feelings at some point in time and suddenly they don’t feel quite as heavy.
Some may argue that self-compassion is like self-pity where we focus only on ourselves. This simply isn’t true. Self-compassion allows us to see things as they are – no more and no less. It puts your problems into perspective. Self-compassion also isn’t self-indulgent as it’s not focused on pleasure-seeking, rather it allows us the space to evaluate whether something is beneficial over the longer term.
There is also a myth that self-criticism is motivating, and therefore acting compassionately towards yourself means you’re going soft. Neff argues, and research supports, that this simply isn’t true. We know that self-criticism makes you fear failure and miserably push yourself towards whatever ends you’re trying to achieve. Eventually, you lose faith in yourself and your abilities. Your self-esteem is further eroded and you fundamentally believe that “I am bad”, rather than focusing on changing behaviors that might not be working in your best interest.
Self-Compassion as a Practice
Moving away from lifelong patterns of judgement and self-criticism isn’t an easy task. It’s not like we can wake up and suddenly decide that we’re our own best friends. But by making subtle shifts in our thinking and behavior, we can move towards a regular practice of self-compassion. With practice, it can become our new normal and change our lives. To help with starting a regular practice, we’ve created a self-compassion calendar for the month of February.
For the next 28 days, we’ve given you small actions that you can easily incorporate into your routine. Some of these may ask you to consider starting a behavior or way of thinking. Others may ask you to evaluate your self-esteem, or set aside time to work on a self-care activity. Many of these are inspired or taken from Neff’s work, so these are research and evidence-based. It’s our hope that over the next month, especially as our collective conversations turn towards Valentine’s Day and love, that you can start to make space in your heart and mind for yourself.
Shannon Hennig is Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.