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What is Self-Compassion?

As human beings, we tend to be our own worst critics. When we make a mistake, we are very quick to judge, saying things like, “Wow, I’m such an idiot! I can’t believe I messed up so badly” or “I’m so stupid. I can never do anything right”. Do any of these statements sound familiar to you? Chances are you have said something similar to yourself when you’ve made a mistake or failed at something.

As rational people, we know that mistakes and failures are part of being human. We know it is inevitable that we’ll screw up sometimes and we know we won’t succeed at everything we try. So why are we so hard on ourselves?

The common answer is that being it keeps us in line. Who else will let us know when we’ve made a mistake? How else are we supposed to learn from our failures? If we aren’t beating ourselves up, how will we know to not make that mistake again? We often believe that being critical of ourselves help us to be our best. For example, it might help us to get an A on the test, to earn a promotion, or to begin and keep a fantastic relationship.

While being tough on ourselves may motivate us for a short time, it tends to be very damaging in the long run. We become terrified of making any mistakes at all because we know that if we do, we will be met by our critical self and be put down, shamed, and attacked for screwing up. Eventually, we stop trying anything in the first place because…well, what’s the point? We’ll just yell at ourselves anyway. In the long-run, being extremely self-critical actually does the opposite of what we want it to – it holds us back and makes us afraid of trying anything new. We end up stuck, frustrated, and feeling extremely bad about ourselves.

If you still don’t believe that criticism is damaging, consider this example. Imagine that you’re a parent. Your 12-year-old son comes home after school in tears because he has failed his math test. You know that he studied hard for it and that he was hoping to do very well. You can choose to respond in many different ways. You could choose to say: “Wow, you really messed that up! Man, you must feel really dumb – make sure you study harder next time”. How do you imagine your son might feel? He likely feels belittled, hurt, and very stupid. He might study hard for the next test in the hopes that the outcome will be different. If he does well, he might feel better about himself. But eventually he won’t do as well as he would like on a test (because he can’t be perfect) and then what? Would you then criticize him harshly telling him you can’t believe he could mess up like that? Then he will feel hurt and stupid all over again. Eventually, he’ll stop trying because he’ll want to avoid the pain of the criticism and feelings of failure. He may even start to believe he is stupid, when in fact, he is only an imperfect person making mistakes, like we all do.

You might be thinking to yourself: “But I would never say something so mean and critical to my son”! You very well might not. But why not? Well, we don’t typically talk to other people the way we talk to ourselves because we know that being cruel and critical doesn’t encourage or help people. Instead, we know that saying something to your son like: “Wow, you seem really down about failing your test. Its okay to make mistakes. How about you and I study together for the next one?” is a much more encouraging response. Yet we still continue to be hard on ourselves and often lack the same kind of compassionate voice for our own struggles.

What would it be like to change your inner voice to say something kind, compassionate, and caring to yourself? What would it be like to treat yourself like you would a close family member or friend? This idea might seem strange to you and that’s okay. Its not something we’re used to. However, if we can learn to be kind to ourselves and treat our self with the same care and compassion we show others, we are more likely achieve our goals, try new things, and feel better about ourselves. Need to discuss this or want to talk to someone, view our Counselling pages

For additional ideas on practicing self-compassion, please stay tuned my next blog post for Part 2 on Self-Compassion.