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  • Writer's pictureRae Gateley, LCSW

We Have to Live with Ourselves

A Case for Self-Compassion

Let’s face it. No one can escape their own company. For better or for worse, each of us has an unbreakable bond with one person - our self. We might as well make peace with that person and learn to live with them. Self-compassion can help you do that.

What it Is

Self-compassion is a way of thinking about yourself that enables you to give yourself the same acceptance, grace, protection, and care that you extend to others whom you respect. It involves making the choice to view yourself through a lens of compassion instead of a through a shaming lens. If you have a long-standing habit of viewing yourself in a highly critical way, you may find it hard to pack that lens away. It might feel awkward, or even scary. You may feel resistant to the entire concept. We all tend to think that we are living a #nofilter life, and that our perceptions equal the complete and correct view of reality. The truth is that we always view life through one lens or another, and can choose to make adjustments for clearer results. Self-compassion is an important skill for making those adjustments, and like any skill, it gets easier with practice.

Why You Need It

Self-compassion is the key to breaking through cycles of self-sabotage that keep you stuck in a rut. While it may seem like self-criticism helps could you toward improvement, it’s actually not effective at all. A constant focus on your mistakes, weaknesses, embarrassments, and inadequacies may give you a strong feeling that you must change yourself, but doesn’t give you the power to do so. In fact, it sets you up for imprisonment in a frustrating negative feedback loop. Here’s how a feedback loop works: Self-criticism and negative thoughts about yourself result in an intensely painful feeling of shame, which you seek to escape by engaging in some kind of avoidance behavior, which eventually creates or intensifies problems in your life, leading you to feel even worse about yourself, and the cycle continues on.

Does that sound familiar? We’ve all experienced this kind of trap at one time or another. Maybe you’ve had the thought, “I want to exercise more,” which happens to be America’s most popular New Year’s resolution, by the way. There’s nothing wrong with being aware of a problem in your life and wanting to do something about it. The trouble starts when you view yourself as shamefully flawed and unacceptable because of the problem. Thoughts like “I’m so lazy! How did I get to this point? I used to be pretty fit, and now I can’t even walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath. It’s disgusting! I can’t commit to anything. I never follow through to finish anything or reach a goal. I guess that’s why things never work out for me. I’m just a loser.” After a few minutes of thoughts like that, you will feel exhausted and need relief from the relentless shame-attack. You seek escape from your thoughts by immersing yourself in a movie, or a game, or enjoying a delicious snack. This brief distraction makes you feel better for a little while, but… you still haven’t exercised, and soon feel even worse about yourself than before. The negative feedback loop has destroyed many New Year’s resolutions in this way.

The self-compassion lens can actually move you toward your goals much better than the lens of self-criticism. Viewing yourself compassionately, you might remind yourself, “I care about being healthy, and I’m looking forward to being able to enjoy a more active life again. It’s going to be nice to have more energy! There are people who depend on me, and I’ve neglected myself while taking care of their needs. I love being there for others, but I’m learning that one of the best things I can do for them is to take care of myself. I know it won’t be easy, but I’ve taken the first steps and will just keep going, one step at a time.” Thoughts like these are motivating because they help you be at peace with yourself. You feel no need to escape from yourself, so you are free to move forward toward your goal.

As you develop your self-compassion, you’ll find yourself feeling happier, calmer, more in control, and more connected to yourself and others.

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