Hands up if you are your own worst critic. If you’re anything like me, then your hand is raised right now…Or maybe even both hands.
No one likes to fail, embarrass themselves, regret their decisions, over/under react or feel inadequate. However, these experiences are an inescapable part of life and, when we give ourselves a hard time, we tend to compound our negative feelings.
Meditation teacher Shinzen Young explains this by suggesting that while pain is a part of the human experience, suffering is something we choose. This is done either by avoiding pain or becoming overly attached to it. And let’s face it, every one of us employs both these tactics regularly.
However there is an alternative and it’s called mindful self-compassion (MSC).
MSC pioneer Dr Kristen Neff describes this as the practice of being your own good friend. When those we love are experiencing pain or failure, our natural response is one of compassion. This is the desire to relieve pain but, because we know we are often powerless to do so, it becomes a combination of empathy and awareness.
Unfortunately most of us are not as kind to ourselves, and harsh expectations or self-talk are usually what cause our suffering.
As an antidote, Neff has identified three elements of MSC: mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness.
Firstly, mindfulness requires being aware of our thoughts, emotions and reactions. This is done in a non-judgmental way, so that the whole spectrum of emotions can be felt without being labelled good or bad. The idea is that being aware of our natural reactions forms a good middle-ground between avoidance and over attachment.
Secondly, in our darkest moments it becomes incredibly easy to think we are alone. This is because, when we experience anger or fear, our brain activity becomes sharper and narrower. While this is part of our survival instinct, it can also leave us feeling isolated. Common humanity involves realising that everyone feels pain and inadequacy. Once we accept that negative experiences are not just happening to us, we are more likely to be kind to ourselves.
Which brings us to the final element. While it is fairly self-explanatory it can often feel the most uncomfortable. We live in a world where kindness is often thought of as weakness and where the only way to get results is to push ourselves. We worry that anything less may be perceived as self-indulgence. Self-kindness recognises that encouraging and empathetic self-talk and self-care activities are an important part of re-energising ourselves.
In addition to explaining what MSC is, Neff also explores what it isn’t, namely self-pity, self-indulgence or self-esteem.
On this last point, Neff explains that self-esteem is contingent on success or failure and often involves elevating or separating ourselves from others in order to feel special. In contrast, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. Everyone is equally worthy of compassion, because pain is an aspect of all lives. Additionally, self-compassion is based on seeing the similarity between people’s experiences, rather than separation.
I have been practicing MSC for three years now and it has definitely increased my self-awareness. That unhelpful and critical voice I hear when I make mistakes is now tempered with a soothing, encouraging one. And, because I sit more comfortably with my own frailty, I can also sit more comfortably with others’.
If you’re interested in testing how self-compassionate you are, you can take a quiz here.
Photo credit: Radiant Mama