Can Self-Compassion Help the Self-Loathing Person?

Can a self-loathing person be kind to himself?

Posted Mar 05, 2011

Like Professor McGonigal, I too read Tara Parker-Pope's New York Times article on self-compassion with interest, and immediately wondered how Professor Kristin Neff's work in the area might relate to my previous posts about self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy (see here, here, here, and here). Might self-compassion provide help to the self-loathing? I'm afraid I'm skeptical, and here's why.

As I've explained before, the self-loathing person does not respond to external praise well, either minimizing it, explaining it away, or dismissing it altogether. However much friends and family tell him he is a good person, he shrugs it off, saying that these people obviously don't know the real person inside. The only way a self-loathing person is going to overcome his self-loathing is internally, changing his beliefs about himself. And this is where self-compassion seems promising, especially if self-compassion can help the self-loathing person see himself differently.

In her 2003 article, "Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself" (Self and Identity 2: 85-101), Professor Neff describes three aspects of self-compassion:

(a) self-kindness—extending kindness and understanding to oneself rather than harsh judgment and self-criticism, (b) common humanity—seeing one's experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness—holding one's painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them. (p. 89)

On the surface, these seem tailor-made for the self-loathing person, since each one would help him "go easy on himself," as Ms. Parker-Pope says in the title of her New York Times piece.

However, it would be very difficult for a self-loathing individual to initiate self-compassion, for the simple reason that they would likely do not feel they deserve to. Imagine telling a depressed person to cheer up, to which she would probably reply, "if I could just 'cheer up,' I wouldn't be depressed!" But the case of the self-loathing person is somewhat different (although, of course, he may also be depressed): it may not be that he can not feel compassion for himself, but rather that he doesn't feel he deserves it.

One reason the self-loathing person is dismissive of praise from other people is that, despite their protestations, he does not feel he merits the praise. He feels worthless, and any worth that other people attribute to him, to his mind, must surely be a mistake. How is such a person to feel he is worth his own compassion, especially when he knows better than anybody else his "true" worthlessness?

As Lao-Tzu famously said (roughly), a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The self-loathing individual may very well be able to take that first step, but first he must believe the journey is worth taking. And if that belief depends on self-compassion, we have a vicious circle, and there doesn't seem to be an obvious way to break it.

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