There is a weird cycle that happens with self-esteem – people are expected if they don’t have high self-esteem to “work on it” which in turn gives that person another expectation they are not living up to. Does being told you’re not living up to expectations help with self-esteem? Nope. There’s also this idea that a persistent and harsh inner self-critic is necessary in order to continue through life and be successful, which brings up a question that I’d read in literature about body positivity: How can you expect to find happiness on a road that’s paved with self-hate? Not to mention that this type of inner self-critic entails cruelty to one’s self, which cannot help but result in cruelty to others at some point. If you have impossible standards for yourself to achieve, it’s unlikely you will be able to present a kind, empathetic self to others. I downloaded a book recommendation from one of my clients this week, Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, and it’s been a huge eye-opener for me personally as well as a help to some clients, so I thought I’d process some of that here.
Shameless non-endorsed plug here – Audible is really a therapist’s (or regular person’s) best friend. I was used to reading other blogs and listening to other therapists talk about all the books they read to help them with X,Y,Z problem and wondered how does a normal like me make the time to read 8,379 books in a year like that. Short answer – Audible. So please do not allow book recommendations you do not have time or interest in reading be another thing you add to the pile of self-criticisms today, because no one is actually reading that many books. Except Stephen King, who apparently reads 1 book a week, but he is Stephen King.
Why is this important to do? Think of how many hours of the day you are conscious and thinking. How much of that time are you narrating, evaluating, or considering your own actions? Now think about how much of that time your internal monologue is focused on your faults, mistakes, unmet needs, and failures. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s probably at least a couple of hours per day. Imagine if you had a friend who was living with someone that spent a couple of hours per day telling them that they weren’t good enough, they needed to lose weight, they shouldn’t have made that mistake, etc, etc. You would correctly identify this as a horrible, abusive relationship, and advise your friend to get as much distance from the other person as possible. The same is true with self-criticism, with the caveat that the other person is you. This makes it more difficult because you cannot escape yourself, but also easier in that the only person in the world you can change is you.
Of course self-esteem and self-love are great, and if someone has high levels of these that’s great too. The limitations of self-esteem and self-love are that they don’t help with unrealistically high expectations, allow for flaws, or acknowledge the experience of other people. The idea of self-compassion is unique because it acknowledges the shared humanity of others and allows for opening up one’s self to others, it can help with people who struggle with feelings of inadequacy or comparing themselves to others. One of the Catch-22’s the book sets up is how we seek connection and belonging to others through achieving beauty, success, or other pursuits, yet we use divisions that separate us from other people through competition and comparison. People like to feel that they are superior to others to preserve their self-worth, and this is also attached to seeing the groups that they are a part of as superior. This can be negative when it causes someone to view other groups as inferior or threatening to their own groups, leading to racism, sexism, and religious intolerance.
So how do we do self-compassion? It’s both easy and hard (just like everything having to do with changing yourself!). The easy part is that most people have an idea internally of what compassion means and what it looks like. They can recall a person in their life who has shown them real compassion, whether it’s a parent, relative, teacher, friend, significant other, or a therapist. An easy exercise is to imagine your internal voice as an imaginary friend that knows everything about you – all of your lived experiences, your flaws, your strengths, and your reasons for what you do – and imagine how that person may speak to you. Take that thing that you’re mulling over in your mind and self-criticizing about and ask the kind version of your internal voice what it thinks about it. If this is hard to do, take a step back and imagine the behavior that you did and how you may judge someone that you love if they did the same behavior. Think of what you’d say to them if you overheard them saying the things to themselves that you are saying to yourself.
Back to the argument I know many people have with self-compassion – If I decide to just accept all the things that are wrong with myself, won’t I just be allowing myself to be a horrible failure as a person? Again, let’s use the example of yourself as another person. Imagine there’s a teacher who is your inner voice, and the part of you that makes decisions in life is a student. When you were a student or employee, what kind of teacher or boss really helped you grow and thrive, who gave you the bravery to try new things and challenge yourself through difficulty? Probably this was someone who offered space to make mistakes, trust, kindness, and high esteem. What was your progress like when you had teachers or bosses who yelled, called you names, or criticized mistakes harshly? Maybe you did learn some things but it’s likely these were not scenarios where you felt joy, curiosity, or a desire to learn. If the desire you have is to be better in your life, in whatever pursuit, you need a kind, compassionate, and firm instructor. You can train your self critic towards kindness while still holding yourself accountable for things you did wrong, but by allowing yourself compassion you’ll have space to learn from your mistakes. Listening to a harsh self-critic often involves shutting yourself off from the emotions because it’s too difficult to feel the self-hate. Allowing self-compassion to govern your internal voice gives space to process and understand what happened so you can figure out better ways to proceed in the future, rather than spending that energy beating yourself up.