I recently got a message from a reader which bears reflecting on. She wrote:
“What’s the deal on self-compassion and self-love? I was brought up to think self-love was a flaw, that it made you full of yourself and prideful, so I really don’t get why this has suddenly become a ‘thing.’ Where’s the line between being a narcissist and self-compassion? Is there one?”
There actually is. It’s true enough that “self-love” has gotten a bad rap in our culture, doubtless a holdover from the Puritan foundations that remind us that “pride goes before a fall,” which is part of the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. So let’s focus on self-compassion, which doesn’t invite confusion with being conceited or headstrong. Self-compassion can be seen as the opposite of the habit of self-criticism, one many unloved daughters unwittingly indulge in.
What is self-criticism? It is the mental habit of attributing failures or setbacks in life to your own character flaws; often, self-criticism is an internalized version of the things that were said to you and about you in your family of origin.
In most families, these statements about your essential nature and character not only pass as “truths” but are considered set in stone, and, often, one child who is labeled as lazy or unmotivated is contrasted with another who’s ambitious and successful. No matter how you were pigeonholed—as difficult, aloof, lazy, or dumb—the chances are good that you believed that it was true at some level; some daughters buy into the assessment fully, but for others, the belief is strong enough to create a wellspring of self-doubt.
What does self-criticism sound like? Here are some examples: “The relationship ended because he saw through me and realized I wasn’t good enough”; “I got passed over for the promotion because I’m not as smart or ambitious as the rest of the team”; “No matter how hard I try, I’m never going to reach my goal, because I don’t have what it takes.”
See the way there’s a cause-and-effect between who you supposedly are and a bad outcome?
Critical thinking and self-criticism
So, maybe you’re thinking to yourself that being realistic about your abilities and taking responsibility for failure—and, yes, even blaming yourself—might not necessarily be a bad approach. It isn’t, but that’s not what self-criticism is.
Securely attached people—those were loved and supported in their families of origin—do, in fact, self-assess after a failure or setback, but they don’t use their character or traits as the sole context. Instead, they weigh their own performance, along with other factors that may have contributed to the result; they ask themselves how they might have handled things better and factor in those elements of the situation they had no control over. That is a very different mental exercise than the automatic and largely unconscious devolution into self-criticism.
Self-compassion and how it works
The work of Kristin Neff has done much to illuminate the essence of self-compassion. She delineates three steps, which underscore how this perspective differs not just from self-criticism but also from self-pity. Rather than see yourself as separate and distinct, you are instead encouraged to see yourself in the larger context of humanity. What does this mean?
- Extending kindness and understanding to yourself, rather than judgment or criticism;
- Seeing your experience as aligned with and a part of larger human experience;
- Keeping yourself aware of your painful feelings without over-identification with them.
Here’s the point: Just as compassion involves feeling for the experiences of others and extending kindness and understanding to them, so self-compassion involves caring for the self in the same way.
Is this something you can do?
Why is self-compassion difficult (and necessary) for the unloved daughter?
In addition to the default position of self-criticism and all those internalized characterizations learned in childhood, the unloved daughter has the larger problem of believing that she’s not different in some fundamental way from all the well-loved daughters out in the world. Because she still believes in the mother myth—that all mothers love unconditionally—her assumption is that there is something wrong with her, something that makes her unlovable, and that makes her different from everyone else. That’s not true, but the daughter has to go through the stage of discovery and begin to see that it was never about her in order to even begin working on self-compassion.
But even when you’ve been able master the first steps of caring, you will probably have difficulty with the third step: acknowledging your painful feelings without being overwhelmed by them. Among the legacies of a toxic childhood are real deficits in both the management and identification of emotions; women with an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment tend to be flooded by emotion, while those with a dismissive style push them away and don’t use them to inform their thoughts and actions. That said, emotional intelligence is a set of skills that can be practiced and honed.
Steps toward self-love and compassion
Becoming fully conscious and aware of your unconscious behavior is the first step to uprooting these old behaviors. Here are some strategies:
1. Register and pay attention to your reactivity. Listen to the voice in your head when things don’t go as expected, and take steps to correct it by reminding yourself not to spin out into self-criticism. If you’re by yourself, talk back to the voice and counter the criticisms.
2. See how you handle compliments and praise. We can unconsciously create our own obstacles when we pooh-pooh compliments and other forms by praise by ignoring them or thinking to ourselves that what we did wasn’t really that great. Be aware that this is yet another way of marginalizing yourself and another form of self-criticism.
3. Do work on seeing yourself clearly when things go south. Take the opportunity to work on managing your emotions when things go wrong, whether that’s a small irritation, a big altercation or disagreement with someone important to you, problems at work, or a real setback or failure. Track your reactivity by journaling, and do what you can to clearly identify what you’re feeling; that’s a key part of emotional intelligence, and strengthening your skills will help you on the road to self-compassion.
Learning to befriend yourself will change much in your life. If you can, work with a gifted therapist, but there is much you can bring to the table on your own.
The ideas in this post are drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. The text of the post is adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright ©2019, 2020. All rights reserved.
Facebook image: christinarosepix/Shutterstock
Neff, Kristen D., The Development and Validation of A Scale to Measure Self-Compassion,” Self and Identity (2003),2, 223-250.
Neff, Kristen D., Ya-Ping Hsieh, and Kullaya Dejitterat, “Self-Compassion, Achievement Gals, and Coping with Academic Failure,” Self and Identity (2005), 4, 263-287.
Neff, Kristen D. Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: William Morrow, 2011.