Be Kind to Yourself | Week Three at Stanford's CCARE

Imagine going into your workplace and calling one of your coworkers over for a chat.

You begin to tell them, in a flustered and frantic way, that they have a lot to do today, more than they’ll be able to accomplish even if they were at their most focused and efficient best. You tell them that they probably shouldn’t have managed their time so poorly the day before. And that they should feel ashamed of how they manage their time in general. You tell them that they aren’t carrying their weight, or doing things as well as they could be done. You tell them that, though they may be doing all they can, it’s never enough.

Without waiting for a reply, you end this conversation by giving them a look of disappointment and shooing them off to go redeem themselves by working harder and not messing up.

Most of us would never consider speaking to our coworker, or anyone else for that matter, in this condescending manner. Yet, how many of us identify with this conversation as one that we’ve had within ourselves a time or two before?

It appears that, though we may be quite skilled at offering compassionate support to others, many of us lack the ability to extend love and kindness to ourselves. In fact, we can be outright mean to ourselves.

What if we tried self-compassion instead?

Throughout my life, I’ve leveraged harsh self-talk as motivation to do and be more – compete in sports, earn higher grades, gain favor with others, make money, overcome difficulties, etc. The not-so-fictitious dialogue shared above is a version of self-talk that runs through my thoughts nearly every morning. I’ve so trained myself to accomplish things through this mode of motivation that it’s difficult for me to imagine there being any other way. And, though I’d never speak to a friend or coworker in the harsh way I speak to myself, the thought of being kinder or more patient with myself seems awkwardly inappropriate.

But what if self-compassion was a more effective way of overcoming difficulties than using criticism and harshness?

A more self-compassionate approach toward interacting with ourselves is precisely what we discussed during week three of Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford. Here’s an overview:

According to research by Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion involves:

  • Mindfulness of your suffering: an ability to identify what’s really going on without abandoning the pain or suffering attached to your experience. Recognizing the need or desire concealed within the suffering – to be healthy, to be happy, to do well or good, to connect with others, etc.
  • Common humanity: our suffering is a part of being human. Everyone on the planet wants love, happiness, and freedom from suffering. We are not alone in our hurt.
  • Self-mentoring: remembering and valuing your most important values and goals, and encouraging yourself to act on them.

Reasons why we’re not very kind to ourselves

Why doesn’t it come naturally to motivate ourselves in the encouraging and diplomatic way we do others? My list of reasons may look different than yours, but I’d venture to guess we hold some of these thought barriers to self-compassion in common:

  • While others around me can fail and/or not bring their best, I cannot. I must be the exception to failure. And if I do fail, I should feel ashamed of myself.
  • I am striving for perfection. Anything less than perfect, or amazing, isn’t worth celebrating.
  • Being harder on myself makes me better than others. If I let up, then I’ll fall behind and not be viewed as strong/good/smart enough.
  • If I’m kind to myself, I fear appearing to be self-indulgent.
  • I must make others’ needs my priority, not my own. Otherwise, I’m being selfish.

Practicing self-compassion

Changing the content of our internal dialogue is no small feat. Suddenly extending love and kindness to ourselves, when we may be more inclined to show judgment and criticism, is not an overnight transition, which is why we must practice.

Last week, I shared about loving-kindness meditation and how it can train our minds and hearts to engage in more empathic and loving ways with those around us. Now, what if we turned that loving-kindness toward ourselves? (I encourage you to revisit the loving-kindness meditation, but this time allow yourself to be the recipient of the kindness and love offered.)

An exercise

Write yourself a compassionate letter from the second person – choose the perspective of a good friend or loved one who deeply cares for your well-being. Then, call to mind a difficult situation or stressor that stirs up suffering in you. How would this friend console and/or encourage you through this time? Let the practice of putting yourself in this more loving perspective be a mode you practice engaging in throughout the day.

I’ll be writing myself a compassionate letter shortly and can share it with you if you’d like. Alternately, I’d love to read yours.

After all, we are in this humanity thing together.