Can You Be Irreverently Self-Compassionate?
A new style of compassionate self-talk to try.
Posted November 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Self-compassion is an incredibly powerful tool for relieving distress, helping us persevere, and helping us bounce back from adversity. But it doesn't appeal to everyone. To some ears, it sounds soppy and sappy, or even self-indulgent.
Truth be told, traditional compassionate self-talk sometimes doesn't appeal to me. When I use it, it works, but it doesn't always fit the mood I'm in.
The dilemma: Self-compassion is highly effective but doesn't always feel appealing.
A solution I've found is to, sometimes, be irreverently self-compassionate. For example, I'm a sensitive person and sometimes I get "butthurt," meaning unjustifiably offended or resentful. Labeling what I'm feeling using that amusing term "butthurt" is irreverent; and tonally, it's funny. That funny, crude aspect clashes with my feeling sensitive.
Tips for Getting Irreverent Self-Compassion Right
When I'm irreverently self-compassionate, I still use all the other components of self-compassion: I label my specific emotions, I note the universality of experiencing emotional pain, and I'm kind to myself.
I'm not judgmental of myself about being butthurt. Even though the strict definition of the term is that it's unjustifiable hurt, I don't judge myself negatively for being ultra-sensitive. By using the phrase "butthurt," I'm merely acknowledging that another interpretation of, and reaction to, a situation was possible. And we all get butthurt from time to time. It's a human experience that I don't overly personalize.
Irreverence is a component of a well-established, well-studied therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). In DBT, the therapist sometimes communicates in irreverent ways. It helps to disrupt the client's distress and paradoxically feels supportive. I borrowed the idea.
What's the danger of using irreverent self-compassion as a type of self-compassion?
People get self-compassion wrong a lot. They think it's cheerleading or reassuring themselves. It's neither of those things. In the science sense, it very specifically means mindfully and non-judgmentally observing your emotions, noting the universality of experiencing emotional suffering—and that humans are imperfect, and being kind to yourself.
So, if you attempt to be irreverently self-compassionate (or teach this skill to your clients), make sure it still checks those boxes. The hardest aspect to mesh is how to be non-judgmentally irreverent.
Concepts in psychology sometimes get hijacked—e.g., the way mindfulness became hijacked as a productivity tool in some spheres. That's not good. The meaning gets lost, and the technique is used to convince people that they should always be grinding harder at life. For example, magazine articles will imply you can work yourself into the ground if you use a bit of mindfulness or self-compassion along the way, or do some self-care at the end of your day. That's not how these concepts are intended.
You can check out some specific examples of compassionate self-talk here and here. Realistically, to hit all three aspects of self-compassion, your self-talk will need to be a little paragraph rather than a single phrase. Get creative and experiment to find language that works for you, in your different moods.