I was in a weekly session of talk therapy when my psychologist said, "You didn't learn about self-compassion in your childhood." Tears welled up in my eyes. Just hearing that sentence soothed me. My head was like a boxing match -- me against me. And he understood. I was in my mid-20s at the time, and my mind was a hostile place of self-criticism, brooding, and self-loathing. Unfortunately, my inner critic accompanied me everywhere.
I had this incredible talent of quickly identifying the best traits in others, while knocking myself down with the worst traits in me. My parents were extremely critical and now they were in my head. "You aren't even close to kind to yourself," my psychologist said. He helped me realize my ability to comfort myself didn't even exist.
It was a pivotal moment for me in therapy. Of course life felt hard. I was beating myself up all the time! Why did I easily have compassion and kindness for others (including my own pets) and have none for me?
Living without self-compassion is like driving a car you never take in for regular maintenance. Eventually your car won't work right and it breaks down. Self-compassion is an emotional tool that builds resilience and mental toughness. With practice, self-compassion can build up your inner strength and ward off depression and anxiety.
Here are five ways self-compassion can turn a painful life into a happy one.
1. Your head shifts from foe to friend. Compassion is kindness. When things don't go right, you coach yourself back up again. You are gentle with yourself. Don't replay events endlessly in your head to make yourself feel crappy. You talk to yourself in kind ways and say things like, "I did the best I could in the moment with the knowledge I had at the time." Give yourself support and encouraging words. Drop the negative voice who scrutinizes your every move, and be a friend to yourself. Most of us operate better when someone believes in us. Let that someone be you.
2. You learn how to comfort yourself. You give yourself a soft place to land when you fall, just as you would offer to a child or a best friend. Comforting yourself doesn't mean you stop taking responsibility for your life and your choices; you just try and understand yourself from a place of empathy. Journal to sort out confusing emotions. Turn setbacks or disappointments into knowledge by asking, "What did I learn from this?" As you treat yourself with the same level of kindness you naturally give to others, your self-worth goes up. Your mind doesn't miss the message that you are treating yourself with value.
3. You pay attention to what you need. Self-kindness means you won't allow yourself to run on empty. You start to notice what you need -- whether that's a walk outside to unplug, or the connection that comes from calling up a close friend for a chat. Any activity that rejuvenates and soothes you is an act of self-compassion.
4. You can stop beating yourself up. Self-compassion can melt away your inner critic. I beat myself up for a lot of normal human traits, while I idealized other people into perfection. As I practiced self-compassion, I realized I wasn't so different from other people. Maybe I'm not the most detailed person and I'm not good with numbers, but I am creative and emotionally intelligent. I make mistakes and sometimes I say the wrong thing, but I am always striving to be better. I have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. By accepting my imperfect self, I silenced my inner critic and embraced who I am. Self-acceptance is a gift of kindness and freedom.
5. You start acting like you are on your own side. Self-compassion means having your own back. If you second-guess or berate yourself relentlessly, you've turned your mind into an opponent, and not a compassionate ally. While we can't control external knocks in life, we can make the internal -- our minds -- a strong and supportive place to exist. I look out for myself now. I notice what I like about myself and use that awareness to raise my self-image. If I'm in a grumpy mood, I ask myself what I've been thinking about and I try it around with positive thoughts. With self-compassion we can build our own emotional safety net and have faith in our ability to bounce back after tough times.
When you develop self-compassion and learn how to comfort yourself, it's like having your own cheerleading squad, pep rally, personal coach, meditation guide, motivational speaker, psychologist and best friend with you at all times. Self-compassion can make us feel better about ourselves so we make better decisions in our lives. Extend the same kindness, love and forgiveness to yourself as you would a best friend. When you learn to treat yourself well, your life will treat you well.