When a friend or family member goes through a difficult time, you know exactly what to do first, right? You offer support through kind words. We don’t for a moment, consider telling them to, ‘get their act together’, ‘just get over it’ or ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself’.
Interestingly we are very good at showing compassion to our friends and family, and even strangers when things in their life don’t go to plan and yet, when it’s our life that is bumpy, we often don’t extend ourselves the same understanding and kind support. When we’re anxious, sad, angry or lonely, most of us turn up our destructive inner chatter, our inner voice, to try to fight difficult emotions that come with hard times. For many of us, it’s hard to think of a time when we were struggling and soothed ourselves by saying, ‘it’s ok, you’re allowed to be worried or sad’.
This topic explores the power in cultivating self-compassion. After learning in this topic, what self-compassion is, when you might need it and practical steps to master it, you and your family can transform your relationship with difficult emotions and become more comfortable with imperfection and pain. It really is that powerful!
To better understand self-compassion, it’s helpful to know what it is not. Self-compassion is not feeling sorry for yourself. Sometimes when I speak on self-compassion individuals are concerned it involves becoming immersed in self-pity. That won’t help us in any way. Similarly, it isn’t about building your self-esteem to see you through difficult times. As we explore below, that is almost the opposite to the aim of cultivating self-compassion.
Self-compassion is best described by Dr Kristen Neff, a pioneering researcher and author on this topic who says it involves three elements (adapted for our topic):
Extending warmness and understanding to ourselves instead of becoming self-critical, angry or stressed. Think about how you speak to a close friend when they’re suffering.
2. Understanding suffering is part of life
Understanding everyone’s life is full of ups and downs, helps us recognise that we’re not alone when we are imperfect, feel inadequate or experience pain and suffering.
3. Be Mindful
Being non-judgmental to all emotions and thoughts that arise during difficult times. Simply acknowledge your thoughts and let them be, without suppressing or amplifying them.
So now you know what self-compassion is all about, how do we introduce it into our lives and the lives of our family members? The steps are very simple! Have a try of these three practical ways you can bring self-compassion into your and your loved-one’s lives.
1. Begin to talk to yourself like a close friend would
Start to listen to the way you talk to yourself, especially when you’re feeling stressed or sad. Become sensitive to your inner-critic (those negative thoughts), and challenge if what you hear, would be what your closest friend would choose to say to you?
If you’re struggling with your health, mentally or physically, and feeling less productive than normal, listen to how you might be talking to yourself. It’s common when we struggle with our health to tell ourselves, ‘I’m a burden’ or ‘I’m not doing enough for my family’. What would you say to your friend who was unwell though? Be kind to yourself, tell yourself you’re going through a difficult time, health issues are part of being human and it’s ok for you to rest.
When our teenagers struggle with a poor grade at school or our adult children make a mistake at work it is likely they tell themselves they’re not good enough. Challenge them by asking what kind encouragement they would give to their closest friend in the same situation? Perhaps your teenager would say to their friend not to worry, they had a lot on this term at school, they passed and have more exams this year to improve on. Your adult child might support a friend by acknowledging nobody is perfect, everyone has times in their career when things don’t go to plan. Now, it’s time for your child to extend themselves the same kindness.
Parents of young children, have you ever realised before the school run that you’re low on school lunch items? You send your kids off with bare lunchboxes, another handful of tuck shop money or before school you’re buttering sandwiches on your steering wheel. These are the sorts of times our inner-critic comes alive, ‘you’re not organised enough’, ‘other parents have this sorted’, ‘my kids should be eating healthier snacks’. Imagine the burden that would be lifted if your inner critic became your friend? You could laugh at how many parents experience this problem (understanding suffering is part of life), remind yourself of the busy week you’ve had that meant you weren’t as prepared as you would’ve liked and what a great parent you are that you care about your children’s lunch (being kind toward yourself).
It’s time to ease up on the self-criticism that’s only adding to our suffering.
2. Change your motivator
Did you know we use self-criticism to motivate us? Think about the times you’ve tried to refrain from eating junk-food. The moment you pick something up that you’re trying to avoid eating, your inner-critic floods you with critical thoughts, usually about your motivation, decisions, weight, exercise goals or doctor’s orders. Sadly, we really think we’re going to create change and stop our undesirable actions if we are hard on ourselves. Usually, we just end up feeling so bad that we dive deeper into the activity we’re trying to avoid. Sound familiar?
A simple way to ease our burdens and bring more self-compassion into our lives is to instead create change through more friendly and positive encouragements. Acknowledge the pain your self-criticism is causing you, and decide what caring words your close friend would use to help you make better choices. A close friend would probably say they understand that chocolate bars look really tasty, then remind you of your health goals or that your doctor asked you to watch your cholesterol. They wouldn’t say you have no self-control.
3. It’s ok to not be ok
Finally, these days when hard-to-bear emotions arise, we often frantically try to suppress them, run from them or overcome them. Our social media feeds are jam packed with tips on how to be happy, well actually how to be everything except sad, lonely, anxious, angry or stressed. The problem is that all of these emotions are part of life and are healthy to experience in short bursts. It’s helpful to change our personal and family’s focus from never experiencing difficult times and emotions, to a more realistic goal of moving through suffering more smoothly with the help of self-compassion.
“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” – Christopher Germer