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Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

Self-Compassion Is The New Self-Esteem

How to like yourself more — Or at least not dislike yourself so much: An introduction to self-compassion

This year I started asking my clients three questions at the end of every counseling session.

The effect of these simple questions on my clients — and me — has been dramatic enough that I make sure there’s time to cover them:

  1. What’s your takeaway from today’s session? Did you have any “aha” moments that translate into a note to self or a headline?
  2. Do you want to convert your takeaway into a call to action? Is there something actionable you want to do or try between now and our next session?
  3. What’s your why? Why do you bother to show up for these counseling sessions? Why is it important to schedule the next appointment?

I’d Like To Let Myself Be Happier

The answers I hear mirror the same ones what originally drew me to counseling for myself: I want things to be better.

  1. I want my relationships to be better.
  2. I want to feel better about myself.

What’s poignant is that the people saying these things have generally done very well in life. They’ve accomplished so much and experienced success in so many ways.

On one level, they have a lot to feel good about and they know that. Here’s the rub: You can have plenty of self-esteem and still not feel that good about yourself or your relationships.

After decades of research, psychologists are finding that the ultimate marker of positive mental health is not self-esteem. It’s self-complacent.

Self-Compassion: Here’s What It’s Not

Self-compassion is the new kid on the block of mental health. It’s a foreign concept for most Americans. I find it’s easier to start out by saying what it’s not.

It’s not constantly telling yourself how great you are and it isn’t being so nice to yourself that you never get anything done. In fact, there’s now a large body of evidence (over 2500 studies) that shows that self-compassion doesn’t make you selfish. It actually makes you less self-absorbed and more prosocial. Self-compassion helps you carefully cultivate your self-image and not feel the need to constantly defend your ego.

Self-compassion doesn’t make you a slacker. Self-compassion actually gives you more motivation and take more responsibility for yourself. It has even been linked to practicing safer sex and a vast array of other benefits. If it’s not self-confidence and it’s not self-esteem, what the heck is this gooey-sounding thing called self-compassion?

The English Language Doesn’t Have a Word for Self-Compassion

No wonder we have such a hard time with what we rather lamely call “self-compassion.” There is no direct English translation for this Buddhist concept.

Here are some of my clients’ reactions: Self-compassion? I think of self-pity.

Self-compassion? Sounds like a bunch of excuses for bad behavior.

Self-compassion? Does it mean you’re selfish or self-absorbed, like a narcissist?

Self-compassion? It sounds self-indulgent. This exercise is one of the best descriptions of self-compassion I’ve found so far:

  1. Imagine times when you felt a sense of friendliness, helpfulness, and goodwill toward someone, whether a stranger, a child, or someone you care about. Whether you gave them a hand or simply wished them well, you extended goodwill toward that person.
  2. Then imagine feeling and extending that same sense of friendliness, goodwill, and helpfulness toward yourself.

Don’t be surprised if you find this darn-near impossible to do for yourself, even though you do it every day for people around you.

Here’s another exercise that may give you a feel for self-compassion: When was the last time you were a recipient of some act of friendly helpfulness or goodwill?

I think of a recent encounter with fellow passengers in the Philadelphia airport. As is often the case, I was struggling to understand and operate a mechanical device. Noticing my confusion at the automated ticket kiosk — and overestimating my abilities — two fellow passengers in line began shouting instructions to me. When that failed, a passerby walked over and offered manual assistance.

All of them were complete strangers. No one was obligated to help. No one beat their chest over this everyday act of kindness. There was no group hug. They simply helped out and moved on.

I’m talking about the natural beneficence that’s the hallmark of most of humanity. If these random acts of kindness are the lubricant that turns the wheels of civilization, why is it so foreign and incredibly uncomfortable to offer it to ourselves?

On a practical level, all we’re talking about is how to like yourself a little more and treat yourself a little better.

Self-Compassion Is a Radical Act

The practice of self-compassion is a radical act. Seriously. In our mainstream culture, self-compassion is quietly forbidden and secretly judged.

What makes the taboo so effective is that it’s passed along in the form of unspoken, unwritten rules: You’re just not supposed to go around liking yourself, wishing yourself well, and treating yourself with kindness. There’s something unseemly about it, even slightly subversive. Something to be nipped in the bud.

If my mother were alive, I’m sure she’d be totally against self-compassion. I don’t want you to get the big head, I can hear her saying. Even if you agree that you’d be happier if you disliked yourself less or maybe it would be a good idea to treat yourself a little better, how do you get started?

  1. Let’s assume your first reaction is to recoil at the idea of feeling goodwill or acting with kindness toward yourself. The best strategy for getting past the negativity? Don’t fight it. Instead, be open and curious about any predictably negative reactions you may have. Fortunately, you have a committee member in your head who knows how to be open, curious, and non-judgmental. (Yes, you may just need some help getting in touch with it but trust me. It’s there.)
  2. Anticipate some serious pushback from your Inner Critic. Of all the committee members in your head, the Inner Critic is the most fearful of self-kindness. So how do you get internal permission to explore this forbidden topic? Oddly enough, I’ve found the Inner Critic a valuable ally in the journey to self-compassion. Taking its concerns and objections seriously is what safeguards us from going too far and falling prey to self-absorbed, self-indulgent narcissism (aka the big head).
  3. If you find yourself “trying” to generate self-compassion, stop. Trying to think or will your way into self-compassion is exhausting, and it doesn’t work. Self-compassion is an embodied felt-sense experience. Since most of us live a short distance from our bodies, you’ll most likely need guidance, practice, and patience to get the hang of it.
  4. Self-compassion is both tender and fierce. Make no mistake: Self-compassion is not wimpy, and it’s not a pushover. Strangely enough, it’s self-compassion that empowers you to say no and set limits. It’s self-compassion that lights up that committee member in your head who knows how to kick butt — your own or someone else’s — when needed.

A Mindful Self-Compassion Exercise: How to Treat Yourself Better in Three Steps

UT-Austin professor Kristin Neff’s pioneering research on self-compassion identified three building blocks of self-compassion. Here’s my take on how to use them as great place to start exploring self-compassion.

  1. Acknowledge the pain. Trying to distract, force, or talk ourselves out of emotional overwhelm doesn’t do much good. There’s something about naming the pain that takes away some of its power. Whether silently, out loud, or in writing, acknowledge the pain. Keep it short and simple.  EXAMPLES: This feels awful. I hate this. This scares me. That hurt. This is hard. 
  2. Acknowledge our common humanity. I’m often astounded at how badly we don’t want to be human. If we only could hold ourselves above the common human frailties of our species and the vicissitudes of life. When we feel isolated and alone in our pain, it has a way of increasing our suffering. Trying to be special or better than the rest of your fellow human beings doesn’t transcend or exempt you from pain. So let yourself join the human race. EXAMPLES: Everyone has times like this… We all feel this way sometimes… It’s part of life. We all have experiences like this… I’m not the only one… It’s part of being human.
  3. Take action. Offer yourself some comfort, protection, or help. I find it helps just to know there’s always something you can do, right now, to help yourself. No, you may not immediately solve the problem. But whether it’s generating self-compassion that’s tender or fierce or both, you’re supporting yourself emotionally and positioning yourself into a problem-solving mindset.

Get Grounded:

I’m going to ground myself by (feeling the connection of my feet to the ground, or taking a sip of water, or lightly pressing my palms to the tops of my thighs, etc.)

Set Limits:

I’m going to disengage by (breaking eye contact, or changing the subject, or leaving the room, etc.)

Offer Comfort:

I’m going to comfort myself by (clasping my hands together, or resting my chin in my hand, or pressing my hand to my chest, etc.)

Begin With the End in Mind

I wish I’d let myself be happier. Of the Top Five Regrets of the Dying identified by hospice worker Bronnie Ware, I think this one packs the most punch.

And nine times out of ten, it’s echoed every time I ask at the end of a counseling session: Now remind me… Why are we doing these counseling sessions?

That’s why I plan to keep asking it