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With Valentine’s day coming up, we thought you should give yourself a gift this year.

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Give Yourself a Pat

Self-compassion. Sounds flowery, spiritual, and makes you want to flat-out avoid anyone who says it out loud. But, we’re going to bite the bullet and write about it, because even though it may be all of these things, it’s also one more thing: smart.

So, what is it?

Self-compassion is simply the act of treating yourself the same way you would treat a friend after they’ve behaved “inadequately”of course, emphasis on the quotation marks.

Think of a time when this has happened, when a friend made a mistake in their own life and you were there to console them. What did you say to them? Did you tell them they were a complete idiot and that there was no way to mend the situation? Or, did you tell them that everyone makes mistakes, it’s an opportunity to learn from, and they shouldn’t beat themselves up about it?

We bet (and hope) it was the second. The cliche is true: we’re our own harshest critics. We treat ourselves in ways we would never treat other people. Don’t believe us? Try saying out loud to your friends, the things you say to yourself in your head. This is a surefire way to expose how mean we are to ourselves. Disclaimer: you may lose friends.

Although the origins of self-compassion are rooted in the Buddhist tradition, it has seen light in the scientific sphere, mainly led by Dr. Kristin Neff, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is known as the pioneer of self-compassion research.

But, why do we do it?

This little thing called negativity bias, which is the phenomenon that we tend to put more weight on our flaws and inadequacies than our successes. According to the editor at Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Morano, explains that “nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains.”

It’s innately human to do this. That’s why self-compassion takes practice. The first step in scaring away our negative internal chatters is to be more mindful. Dr. Neff says that we must first mindfully acknowledge our pain in a nonjudgmental way. Then, we need to remind ourselves that we are not alone, that imperfection is part of a shared human experience.

Ok, and what does it do to us?

Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that self-criticism can negatively harm our bodies by “stimulating inflammatory mechanisms that lead to chronic illness and accelerate aging.”

We can see the shocking results of self-compassion practice in one study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress on military vets: “Those who measured higher on the self-compassion scale were less likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, the presence of self-compassion was a better predictor of long-term mental health than how much combat action they had seen.” Doesn’t sound so flowery after all, does it?

How do we solve it?

That’s coming up.

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Three Elements of Self-Compassion

Here are the self-compassion basics explained by Dr. Kristin Neff:

1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement

Realize that mistakes and inadequacies are inevitable. Instead of criticizing yourself ’till you’re blue in the face, take the kind route and be gentle with yourself. Pobody’s nerfect (hehe).

2. Common humanity vs. Isolation

When things don’t go our way, we often feel an illogical sense that we are the only one in the world who has flaws and makes mistakes. This, of course, isn’t true. All humans face the same personal limitations. Self-compassion involves realizing that shortcomings are a shared human experience. It’s not you. Well, it is. But it’s also us, and everyone else.

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification

Being mindful entails looking at your own thoughts and feelings from a third-party-like perspective, from a distance. Mindfulness is a mental state in which you view yourself with clarity and in a non-judgmental way. This also requires that you do not over-identify with your own thoughts and become too engulfed in their negativity.

via self-compassion.org

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Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer’s three steps to self-compassion:

First: make the active decision to think about yourself differently. This would entail less self-criticism, self-judgement, or harsh scrutiny. This can be done by noticing these negative thoughts and letting them go. One of the best ways to do this is by practicing meditation (check out our full meditation issue here). Or, you can do things to get out of your own head like volunteering or helping out a friend.

Second: Find new responses to your inadequacies. If your inner critique says, “You’re a failure,” respond with this: “You’re doing the best you can.”

Third: according to Dr. Brewer, this is the most important step to shift your inner criticism long-term. Recognize the difference between your feelings when you indulge in self-criticism, and your feelings when you let go of it. “That’s where you start to hack the reward-based learning system,” Dr. Brewer said. A part of our brains called the orbitofrontal cortex is, according to Dr. Brewer, always looking for the “BBO — the bigger better offer.” Your brain will learn that letting go of criticism is definitely the BBO.

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The core to self-compassion is to avoid getting caught up in our mistakes and obsessing about them until we degrade ourselves, and rather strive to let go of them so we can move onto the next productive action from a place of acceptance and clarity.

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Explore more about self-compassion with some extra reading recommendations:

Short-read: Take the short self-compassion quiz to get an idea of your own level of self-compassion.

Medium-read: Why and how you should be nice to yourself this Valentine’s day.

Long-read: The self-compassion solution published in the Scientific American Mind.

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