This barrier to compassion strikes at the heart of many people’s psychology. On a gut level, many people worry that if they are more compassionate with themselves, they will behave badly. They don’t trust themselves to operate from a place of goodness and caring. Many of us believe that in order to be good, we have to be hard on ourselves, and others. As a result, we focus on rules, standards and morals, often with a rather judgmental attitude, to measure whether we are a good person.
This attitude may come in part from our childhood experience of having to learn social norms, and how to manage our strong emotions. Even if we were taught with gentleness and kindness, our brains tend to hang on to those moments when we felt the anxiety of being told we’d done wrong. We probably don’t remember the many moments we spontaneously hugged our little sister, or petted the dog’s head. Depending on the attitude of our caregiver, that act may not have been reinforced, or even noticed. Over many repeated episodes of being scolded for being “bad” and not noticed for being “good” we might build up an inner sense of ourselves as being basically “bad”. We might internalize the attitude that we have to keep a close rein on our thoughts and feelings, and be vigilant against our supposed dark impulses. Similarly, we don’t readily notice, trust or even value the caring, giving impulses we experience probably every day. This sad state of affairs can result in an ever-tightening circle of judgment, fear and rigidity, squeezing out the warm moisture of loving kindness and compassion we all have as a natural part of our being. This robs us of the crucial emotional nourishment we all need to exist, much less thrive. In fact neuroscience research shows that when people try to motivate themselves with self-criticism they are much less productive than when they motivate themselves with kindness and compassion.
Motivating ourselves from a place of compassion requires differentiating self-criticism from self-accountability. Being accountable to one self means you keep in mind your goals, you are open and honest with yourself about what you have done that may have interfered with meeting those goals, and you resolve to make changes that will enhance your likelihood of success. The emphasis is on evaluating your behavior, which can be altered. A self critical approach tends to view the self as fixed and focuses on those qualities that are viewed as (but usually aren’t) unchangeable, creating inner dialogues such as “I’m so clumsy, I’ll never be good at this game” or “why am I so awkward around people, it’s no wonder I never have a date”. These inner dialogues view one self as having a fixed identity, as “clumsy” or “awkward”, and create a feeling of inner shame.
Viewing the self as a changing entity, as not inherently fixed is a truer and more useful approach. We truly are always changing, from a cellular level up to a psychological level. Yet we have a strong habit of thinking of ourselves as fixed, as “I am strong” or, “I am weak” etc. Then, to counteract our tendency to focus on our failures we like to hold on to our successes. We look to our successes to bolster our sense of worth and safety in the world, to try to build a solid identity as good, or competent. When we see ourselves as an ongoing evolving process we hold onto our identity more lightly in the face of both successes and failures, which is ultimately quite freeing, but can be scary at first. The price of not doing so is the anxiety, loss and shame that can occur when we inevitably experience the changing nature of our selves, in the form of setbacks or frustrations, or even when we just worry that these things will happen.
Shame is an extremely debilitating inner state, resulting in the inhibition of thought and action, and painful resonance with past criticisms or threats. It shuts down the mind, and makes it much more difficult to make use of the inner and outer resources that are available for change. In this state, one is more vulnerable to depression and anxiety, further reducing one’s ability to move forward.
Approaching oneself from a position of self-compassion shields oneself from shame and supports the mind’s capacity to adapt and create solutions. Kristen Neff, PhD. has developed a useful description and definition of self-compassion. Her definition of self-compassion has three components:
1: Mindfulness: Being able to be aware of and be present with the situation and the feelings it provokes. With mindfulness we are less likely to reflexively resort to old, potentially unhelpful strategies.
Common Humanity: Common humanity means recognizing that disappointment, challenges, and suffering do not say anything particular about us as individuals; rather it simply means we are human, and that the human situation involves these experiences. We are not alone in suffering, or in joy.
Self-Kindness: This involves keeping in mind and honoring our needs, aspirations and goals. When we value and respect our aspirations and do what we can to develop our lives towards realizing our goals, we are practicing self-kindness. This is not self-indulgence; many goals require hard work and dedication. But if we recognize that change is a process, and that we are always changing, we can be kinder to ourselves and more optimistic about the process of becoming who we want to be.
From our earliest moments we relied on another’s compassion to survive and thrive. No matter our age or situation, our minds and hearts will always be healthier and be more likely to flourish in an environment of compassion. As adults, the most important source of that compassion is ourselves. When we are supported with reliable self-compassion, we can more effectively and reliably offer care and compassion to others. Such is the beginning of a more compassionate world.