There's been so much out there on the internet this past year about compassion— not just for others, but also for ourselves. Why do we need to be compassionate towards ourselves? When is this necessary? And how can self-compassion help us ease the potential for failure when we take new risks to change the way we work and live our lives?
In general, I feel that many people I've met in my life tend to be much kinder and more supportive of others on a regular basis than of themselves. There are reasons for this in our upbringing. Many of us were taught at home to be kind and to consider the feelings of others. But how many of us were brought up to be gentle and considerate of ourselves when we've made mistakes or had a hard time at school, work, or in a close relationship? Many high-achieving people I know were more often taught to get up and go at it again, without learning to acknowledge that we're allowed to make mistakes and be less than perfect— and still be caring and effective people.
In an interview on the radio show, Wise Counsel, Kristen Neff, PhD.— author of the book, Compassion-- The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and co-creator with Christoffer Germer of the highly regarded Mindful Self-Compassion training program— she states that "probably the number one reason people aren't more self-compassionate is that they confuse it with self-indulgence. They really think that they need self-criticism to motivate themselves, and that if they were kind to themselves, they would basically let themselves get away with anything."
Neff adds, "It's almost easier to give yourself compassion if you're thinking of yourself as someone else." If a friend were upset, for example, that she didn't do well with a job interview, you would be very unlikely to take her to task, tell her how she's always so unprepared or unfortunate— those things you're so much more willing to tell yourself. Does batting yourself on the head over and over help motivate you to try again, perhaps in a new ways using some different skills? Probably not!
So as a professional who helps people make career and other life transitions, I'm grateful to Neff and others who are actively researching the role of self-compassion in working and living our lives fully. A key finding is that it's much more motivating to treat yourself humanely, with kindness and understanding, than endlessly criticizing yourself for wrong turns, lapses, and errors of judgement.
I'm glad to be reminded of this, since one thing I know well from my clients' journeys and my own is that making changes and taking risks— even to manifest the dreams and goals you really want— can be very challenging at times. The bigger the changes you go for, the more unknown the territory, the greater is the likelihood of missteps and big mistakes.
That's why in the form, "What I Ask of You," that I give to all new clients, I repeat the message about self-compassion during the process of making changes several times in different ways:
- Just do your best. There is no “perfect” way to do things.
- Remember that change-- even change that we choose for ourselves-- is reliably uncomfortable at times.
- Accept both your successes and your failures along the way. Every step you take is good learning that can help you create your vision for yourself.
- Be compassionate towards yourself.
In my exploration of other research projects on how being compassionate to ourselves can positively affect our ability to make positive changes in our lives and in the world, I was also intrigued by this insight from Jean Fain, psychotherapist and teaching associate at Harvard Medical School, and author of the book, The Self-Compassion Diet— A Step-by-Step Program to Lose Weight with Loving-Kindness: “Self-compassion is the missing ingredient in every diet and weight-loss plan. Most plans revolve around self-discipline, deprivation and neglect.”
So in your quest for achievement-- with your new eating habits, your work, or your relationships-- remember that you, like everyone, will screw up or just plain fail in certain ways, at certain times, in the journeying. You are not alone. You do not have to punish yourself in order to make positive changes in how you work, live, and are within yourself. This is what it is to be human. We are fallible, AND we can learn from our mistakes and hold the light for ourselves, as well. As poet Mary Oliver writes:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
So the next time you feel you're off-track, stop, take a few deep breaths, rest your hand on your heart with loving understanding for your discomfort, know you can learn from your mistakes, get up off your knees, re-calibrate your course with caring and compassion.