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Being Kind to Yourself

How self-forgiving and compassionate are we when we have setbacks?

Key points

  • The need for self-compassion exists for anyone who values what they do and cares about what happens when they fail.
  • Kindness can come from any source—family, friends, co-workers—but self-kindness can be a buffer from inner distress.
  • Engaging in self-kindness should not be limited to setbacks or failures; it has value in all aspects of life.

How well do you treat yourself? Are you mostly helpful, sympathetic, forgiving, and supportive? Or are you often critical, demanding, unforgiving, or self-blaming?

Most people treat themselves with all of the above; however, the positive and negative behaviors are seldom equally distributed. No surprise—the negative appraisals and reactions often outweigh the positive ones.

Being unkind to oneself is not a psychologically healthy stance.

There are many ways we can address our shortcomings without being hurtful. For example, if a person is unhappy with their physical appearance, instead of berating themselves, the person can explore options to change that image. This may include doing more exercise, having a make-over, or making a change in diet.

Evaluating oneself does not have to consist of demoralizing characterizations. It can be honest but given with a caring approach. Some people may reject this method, believing that unadulterated honesty is the best means to encourage people to change. Unfortunately, adopting this philosophy has led to some people experiencing depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor interpersonal relationships, and many other problematic issues.

Not everyone has a Teflon coating. On the other hand, taking a “Pollyanna” view of the world and oneself without having a sense of reality can also be psychologically harmful.

How can one be realistic and not overcome by self-negativity?

One way may be to consider what you did when another individual in a stressful situation asked for your help. If you were supportive through kindness, sympathy, and patience, you might have reduced the person’s stress level, even if you were unable to help them resolve their problem. But if you were critical, aloof, or minimized the person’s reactions, you might have contributed to increasing their pain and discomfort.

Sometimes we do not know how our reactions affect others when they are feeling anxious or distressed. Nevertheless, offering support and concern can impact one’s mental state in a positive way. Being harsh and judgmental may help some people, but it can also be more detrimental than we imagine.

We know that being kind and compassionate to those with problems can help them cope with their feelings and situations. Yet, many of us do not apply this same behavior to ourselves. Thus, self-compassion may not be practiced as often as it should.

How to have self-compassion

Neff (2003) defined self-compassion as:

  • “Being open to and moved by one’s own suffering"
  • "Experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself"
  • "Taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures"
  • "Recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience”

An important element of self-compassion is recognizing that no one leads a “charmed life,” free of difficulties and stressful situations. The essential goal of self-compassion is to gain more self-acceptance and kindness toward self (Sheldon et al., 2021).

Clearly, self-compassion is beneficial by helping boost psychological health. It can reduce depression, promote self-forgiveness, stimulate other positive emotions, and assist in acquiring an awareness of negative feelings such that healthy behavior is encouraged.

Yet, there are some who believe that too much self-compassion or acceptance of limitations may render one weak and not equipped to meet the demands of a competitive society. In other words, accepting “less than all you can be” is not an option. This argument is valid for many, because such a belief may foster a drive where people push themselves to attain feats they never thought they could.

Self-compassion is fluid and dependent on how the individual interprets and reacts to their own behavior. It is subjective wherein the person assesses their effort and draws self-compassion for whatever they view as the best they could have done. Self-compassion does not eliminate setbacks, failures, or disappointment, but it also does not generate condemnation or self-belittling. By responding in a kind and understanding way to our limitations, we may acquire the motivation, strength, and confidence to achieve what we thought was unattainable. We become our own cheerleaders, encouraging ourselves not to avoid challenges or fear failure.

Sheldon and colleagues discuss how an individual has “two persons” who engage in dialogue with oneself—one being the “talker” and the other being the “listener.” The dialogue consists of explaining, debating, and convincing oneself about various situations. The researchers suggest that this may help the individual’s well-being and functioning, but possibly only if the “talker” is supportive of and has self-empathy for the “listener,” rather than being critical and controlling. The availability of such support from within oneself (inner voice) can always be present and is most important when the environment is non-supportive. Developing this type of internal support in the form of self-compassion promotes resilience and well-being.

The presence of others we trust renders us more likely to feel safe and be kind to ourselves by engaging in forgiveness for failures or misdeeds. Feeling safe can also be calming and encourage resilience. However, if we feel threatened it is far more difficult to elicit self-compassion, and therefore, self-blaming and self-criticism are likely to emerge.

Being kind to oneself is not inherent or automatic. Many of us must work hard in achieving this. A focus on recognizing and promoting positive attributes may seem too self-centered; however, this can be kept in perspective by modifying a known maxim: “If you are not kind to yourself, how can you be kind to others?” By being kind and forgiving to ourselves, we not only reinforce psychological health but also provide self-support in times of need.

References

Neff, K.D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2(3), 223–250. DOI: 10.1080/15298860390209035

Sheldon, K.M. Corcoran, M. & Titova, L. (2021). Supporting one’s own autonomy may be more important than feeling supported by others. Motivation Science. 7(2) ,176–186. doi.org/10.1037/mot0000215

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