Cultivating Self-Compassion

By Dr Vicki Connop, Clinical Psychologist

One of the most frequent conversations I have with clients in my clinical practice is about the judgmental and self-critical dialogue they have taking place in their head. Almost everyone I meet has some version of a ‘not good enough’ story that follows them throughout their day, passing judgement on everything they say and do, comparing them to others and telling them that they don’t measure up. This is true of even the most outwardly ‘successful’ people and yet it is a well-kept secret. Most people imagine it’s only them that experience life this way, we look at others and imagine they are doing just fine.

When we talk to ourselves in this way, we are continually undermining our self-confidence and peace of mind and generating untold suffering in our lives, and it’s no surprise that these harsh inner dialogues often go hand in hand with struggles like anxiety and depression.

Often when I begin to talk to people about this issue I find that they are very attached to these stories, believing that they are motivating themselves to be better people and that without this berating they would be completely lazy and achieve nothing in their lives. Or quite simply believing that these stories are the ‘truth’. The stories are often deeply engrained and have been passed on from generation to generation, perhaps by parents who used criticism as a way to try to ‘motivate’ themselves and their children to do better. And of course if we search hard enough through our histories we can usually find ‘evidence’ of our failings that support these stories. It’s all too easy to ignore or discount the evidence that might contradict these stories and it seems that collecting more successes and achievements in life does not necessarily quieten these thoughts.

So what is the antidote to beating ourselves up and feeling rotten?

The most effective antidote I know is a skill called self-compassion. The concept of self-compassion has its origins in Eastern spiritual traditions but is increasingly finding its way into western psychology. Self-compassion is not self-pity, neither is it wallowing in your despair or giving up on bettering yourself. Self-compassion is simply adopting the same level of kindness and care that you might readily adopt towards other people who are going through difficult times. Self-compassion is recognising that life can be hard and that most of the time we are doing the best we can, often in very challenging circumstances, that we’re not perfect, we’re human and therefore fallible and that this is OK. The practice of self-compassion is beginning to build another voice in our inner world, a gentler, wiser voice that wants the best for us and wants us to suffer less.

It takes practice to re-wire habits that may have been with us for a lifetime. A useful way to start is to follow these steps:

  • Acknowledge your suffering when things get tough, rather than just pushing through or telling yourself you shouldn’t feel the way you do. Validate your experience by saying to yourself words like ‘this is hard’.
  • Recognise that the emotions you’re feeling are felt by every other living person at some point in their lives. To be human is to experience the full spectrum of emotions, including grief and sadness, anger and frustration, anxiety, fear, shame and guilt. None of us make it through life without being touched by these experiences. It sometimes helps to know we are not alone and you can guarantee that whatever you are going through is also being experienced by hundreds, if not thousands of others too.
  • Offer kind words to yourself, perhaps the words you would offer to someone else who was going through hard times, or even the words you might offer to a child in distress. If you’re stuck for words, keep it simple, start with something like ‘you’re doing your best’, ‘this will pass’, ‘keep breathing’.
  • Practice self-care in whatever way works best for you (seeking support, taking time out, giving yourself rest, eating nourishing food, being in nature, favourite activities, gentle exercise etc)

It can take years of practice to begin to spot those destructive negative thought patterns and to build alternative ways of relating to ourselves, but it is worth the effort to enable us to live with less struggle in our lives, more self-care, kindness and ease. Life will continue to bring its challenges but we can begin to navigate our way through them with less of a fight.

Dr Vicki Connop is a Registered Clinical Psychologist and Yoga Teacher. She is co-director of The Wellness Collective, a holistic health centre and yoga studio in Kingsland, central Auckland. She offers individual therapy and workshops on the theme of cultivating self-compassion.