I’m having a difficult day. Not only my body is sore and I can’t breathe, but I’m also behind with every task I set out to do. I try to operate a home office from my couch, I feel guilty about not eating well and even more guilty about not cooking food for my family. My body wants to rest, but my mind keeps coming up with ideas about why I should be working and what can I do to be more productive. All the unticked boxes in my calendar are driving me crazy, but I’m adding more to the list. And, on top of that, I keep reminding myself how much I’m failing. Does that sound familiar?
Let’s say it’s the other way round. We get a phone call from a friend, who tells us they’re feeling sick and list all the things they are struggling with. We would most likely offer them a compassionate outlook and told them to stay in bed, close the laptop and nap. Then why is it so hard to give ourselves that same compassion as we would for a loved one? Is our brain wired for us to be mean to ourselves? And how to change that?
Less judgement, more compassion
The remedy to our judgmental inner critic is cultivating self-compassion. As Kristin Neff, professor at the University of Texas and researcher whose work is devoted to the subject defines it, self-compassion is “treating yourself with the same kindness, concern and support you’d show to a good friend.” Sounds easy. Then why is it not?
Often when we’re allowing ourselves to feel self-compassion, we tend to feel guilty for being over-indulgent or weak. “Many people in the West struggle with being compassionate to themselves because our culture teaches us that self-compassion is weak and passive, or that it will undermine our motivation,” writes Neff. Cultivating self-compassion is like starting a revolution!
Notice the voice of your inner critic
The first step to cultivating self-compassion is to notice when we’re far away from it. It may be our default way of talking to ourselves, something we have been practicing all our lives, so take a break and notice. Do I want to speak to myself in that way? Would I speak like this to my friend? Does it make me an unworthy person if I don’t fold the laundry right now?
Take a break, pause. You can even thank your inner critic for wanting to protect you. Catch yourself every time you’re not speaking to yourself with kindness and consciously choose a different path. It’s a life-long practice, to rewire our brains to think more compassionate and less judgmental thoughts. Think of it as a muscle we can focus on strengthening!
Remind yourself that you’re not alone
A part of isolating judgmental thoughts we experience during adversity is the belief that we’re alone in these feelings. We feel alone in the way we’re inadequate, with the mistakes we make or the self-doubt we’re flooded with. The remedy for that isolation is realizing that suffering and failure are a part of life and we’re not alone in these experiences.
Here’s how Kristin Neff explains it: “When faced with difficult life struggles, or confronting personal mistakes, failures, and inadequacies, self-compassion responds with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment, recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”
We often forget that difficulty and suffering are universal experiences and things are not always meant to go “right.” Remembering the bigger picture can be very healing. Asking ourselves the question: “Has anyone else experienced this before?” can help us tap into the collective wisdom and connect to the experience of being human.
Add self-compassionate practices to your daily routine
Like with any muscle, practice is the key. The more we consciously choose to train our self-compassion, the more we can notice it flourish in our life. In a Buddhist tradition, there is a practice known as Mettā meditation or loving-kindness meditation. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg proposes repeating a mantra: “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.”
Another beautiful practice to strengthen our self-compassion muscle is to write self-compassionate letters to ourselves. The practice can feel difficult, even awkward at first, because of our conditioning. It’s ok.
It’s the practice of writing to ourselves with compassion and kindness, that help us transform our difficulty into something beautiful, or a valuable lesson. As Kristin Neff explains it, “By wrapping one’s pain in the warm embrace of self-compassion, positive feelings are generated that help balance the negative ones, allowing for more joyous states of mind.”
Allow yourself to feel
Self-compassion doesn’t mean we’re neglecting the pain of failing or feeling defeated. It’s the opposite. Rather than making our pain more acute by blaming ourselves for all the hardship in our life and doubting our self-worth, we can notice our feelings as they arise and be mindful. Not trying to change the experience, but rather letting it be.
A teacher of mine once shared a practice where she would journal on one side of the page as her hurt inner child, letting everything come out, unfiltered. Then, on the other side, she wrote as the consoling inner parent. This way, we’re not pushing our feelings aside, but observing them. This mindfulness offers time and space for us to process whatever we’re going through. Sometimes the voice of the inner critic can be so loud, that we can’t hear what’s going on deeper. Next time it comes back, it’s good to remember to be mindful of whatever arises.
Cultivating self-compassion can change our life and therefore, change the world. It starts with a question: Do I want to fall into this rabbit hole of negative talk again? It’s a gentle revolution, from the judgmental and isolated, to compassionate and interconnected.
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Photo: Darius Bashar via Unsplash