When you’ve made a mistake, failed at something or are generally struggling, do you tend to get annoyed with yourself and mentally beat yourself up? Or do you give yourself a break and recognise it’s ok not to be on top form at the moment?
For some, being kind to themselves is a difficult thing, they can talk to themselves as if they have an inner bully inside that kicks in every time they slip up or have a bad day. Self-criticism is the default mode and familiar put-downs walk through the mind, trampling on mood and self-esteem. If this is something you recognise yourself doing, then maybe it’s time to reflect a while on why this is.
In my experience as a counsellor, there can be a number of reasons why someone struggles to have compassion on themselves, but one of the main ones is due to past experiences where they haven’t received much empathy and compassion from others. Perhaps there wasn’t much tolerance for performing less than your best – you had to be on your best behaviour and do well in everything – or else you were criticised and humiliated. Perhaps you weren’t given much time to express how you felt and have those feelings validated and cared about. Maybe you were compared with others and made to feel less than them. When we go through these sorts of experiences, we learn how to be hard on ourselves… and this way of being can carry on well into our adult lives, and we often don’t recognise it’s a problem, we can even assume it’s how everyone treats themselves.
However, being gentle on ourselves in difficult circumstances is actually really important because it enables us to cope better with tough situations and helps keep our self-worth intact. It also means it’s much more likely we’ll keep going and reaching for our goals. For example, if you know that you’re going to ‘beat yourself up’ if you fail at something, are you likely to have a go anyway? Or are you more likely to avoid attempting it for fear of how you’ll feel about yourself if you fail?
At this point I think it’s important to point out the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem. Self-esteem is our confidence in our own worth and/or abilities, whereas Kristen Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion research, explains that self-compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.’ OK… so how does that feel – embracing yourself as you are, flaws and all? What’s your first reaction to that? If you’re used to being hard on yourself perhaps that doesn’t feel right, that accepting your flaws isn’t good enough? Well, self-compassion isn’t about stagnating and not trying your best anymore, it’s about accepting that you’re human and therefore, in your day-to-day life, despite trying your best, you’ll inevitably make some mistakes, say the wrong thing, make a decision that doesn’t work out to be the best choice etc. It’s a part of the human condition, because none of us are perfect.
One of the disadvantages in living in such a technological age is the rise of social media, and therefore how much easier it is to compare our appearance and our lives with others. It’s all too easy to get the impression from someone’s Facebook page that they are having a wonderful life where nothing goes wrong. The truth is this is a warped perception, simply because most people are only mentioning the good bits – the holiday snaps, the kid who’s passed an exam, the social outing they’ve been on. But rarely do they describe the blazing row they had with their partner, or the email they sent to everyone by mistake instead of just the person it was intended for, or that they didn’t check their bank account before ordering that item online, and now have a household bill they can’t afford to pay… you get the picture. The truth that nobody’s perfect gets distorted by the filters we place on what we share. So, we get the idea we’re the only one who’s having a hard time right now, the only one who’s not good enough.
There’s a lovely quote from a special book called ‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ by Charlie Mackesy, which has some lovely quotes about life. In the book the boy asks the horse ‘Do you know anyone who’s struggled?’, the horse replies ‘I don’t know anyone who hasn’t’. I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with the horse (and that’s not just because I’m a counsellor).
So, should we all go around berating ourselves for every mistake? Is that how we should treat each other? Should we heap shame and humiliation on anyone who doesn’t quite perform perfectly day in and day out? If your friend is having a bad day, do you tell them to stop being so stupid, get a grip and get on with it? That sounds really harsh to me. In fact – it doesn’t sound much like a friend at all!
A friend is one who will listen to us, care about how we’re feeling and give us words of encouragement that let us know we’re not alone, we’re doing the best we can and that we’ll get through this tough patch. So, hang on… if that’s how we’d talk to a friend, why don’t we talk to ourselves that way? Because that’s the bottom line of self-compassion – being as kind to ourselves as we would to a good friend. It’s about speaking compassionately with ourselves, knowing we are worthy of love, regardless of our performance. It’s so important, I’m going to repeat it: knowing you are worthy of love regardless of your performance. That may be something that doesn’t ring true for you, perhaps you see yourself as only worthy of kindness, affection and praise when you’ve achieved something special or achieved everything you set out to… if so, it may be time to do something self-caring and invest some time in exploring this with a counsellor.
Counselling can make a big difference in helping you understand yourself better, heal from past hurts that cause you to struggle to be gentle on yourself, and then give you insight into how to offer kindness to yourself, in a way that nurtures you and brings comfort and reassurance. If this is something you’d like to try then feel free to get in contact, I’d really like to help.