Self-compassion, not self-indulgence – Looking after number one

April 30, 2020

My intention this month was to write about compassion. Lord knows we could all do with some of that right now. But then a post on LinkedIn caused me to rethink. It bemoaned the number of articles exhorting us to “Be Kind” when actually many people are at the end of their tether. Someone added in the comments “I can’t pour from an empty cup”.

I had planned to include a lot in this article about self-compassion but I’ve decided to make it the main focus. Now, depending on your personality and values, you may have a strong reaction to the idea of self-compassion. If you’re a tough-minded, JFDI person, you may be thinking…

Isn’t this all a bit self-indulgent?

No. Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity or self-indulgence. Being your own supportive friend is not the same as wallowing in your problems or sitting in your pyjamas watching Netflix and eating pizza. Research by the foremost psychologist in this area, Kristin Neff, suggests that self-compassion actually motivates people to take responsibility  If the language resonates more with you, you could see self-compassion as one element of resilience.

On the other hand, if you’re a caring, sharing type, you might be thinking…

Isn’t this all a bit selfish?

Again, no. Self-compassion actually reminds us of our shared humanity. You are a flawed human being who makes mistakes and doesn’t always live up to your potential – just like everyone else. It is easier to be compassionate towards others if you are also compassionate towards yourself. For example, research with psychotherapists found that those who were least compassionate to, and most critical of, themselves were the ones who were most hostile towards their clients.

What is self-compassion?

Kristin Neff identifies three elements of self-compassion:

Self-kindness vs. Self-judgement

Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.

Common humanity vs. Isolation

Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  Self-compassion involves recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience.

Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.  It involves observing our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, without trying to suppress them or letting ourselves get swept away by them.

So with all that in mind, here are three tips for being compassionate to yourself in the current climate:

1. Accept that this is difficult

Everyone is affected by this, but clearly we’re not all affected equally. Some people are really suffering – ill, bereaved, facing financial ruin, trapped with an abuser*. So if your main problems are getting a supermarket delivery slot and coping with back-to-back Zoom calls, you might tell yourself you shouldn’t complain when others  have it so much harder.

But we have faced a collective psychological shock. Our normal way of life stopped almost overnight. We live with the constant background threat of an illness which could be so mild we don’t realise we have it or so severe it kills us. We need constant vigilance when outside in case anyone comes too close. We have been separated from all but our immediate households. The economic  impact will affect us for years. We have no idea when any of this will end. Living with this level of threat and uncertainty is draining.

These are the circumstances that push us to the extremes of our personalities. Those who rely on logic become more emotionally detached, while highly emotional people experience more mood swings. The cautious clash with the risk-takers. The sceptics get caught up in weird conspiracy theories. (Bill Gates is going to micro-chip everyone via vaccines. Wake up sheeple!)

A fellow psychologist contributed to this glorious article entitled “Why Is Everyone Being A Bit Of A D*** Right Now?“. It’s true. This crisis has brought out the best and the worst in us. Let yourself off the hook. You’re only human. Even world-renowned relationship therapist, Esther Perel, recently published an article about the joy of complaining. It’s a release valve. We cannot look on the bright side all the time.

*If you are really suffering, I am so sorry. I wish you well. Be gentle with yourself and I hope you get the support you need.

2. Lower your expectations

You may find that working from home makes you more productive. That’s great, but it’s not like that for everyone. Many people are stretched to their limits, particularly those trying to fit work around childcare and home schooling. All those video calls are exhausting, more tiring than a day in the office.  Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not as productive as usual. Does it really matter if your house is dusty?

If, like me, you have less work than normal, you may find it hard to keep motivating yourself without deadlines or structure. In theory this is my April blog post but it’s mid-May and I’m just finishing it. Some days my mojo is nowhere to be seen. I think this is normal. We’re living through a pandemic not attending a self-improvement retreat. I have no plans to emerge from this fluent in Mandarin. 

3. Give yourself permission to feel

There are many things you might be feeling right now:

  • Gnawing anxiety about your financial future
  • Resentment about all the things you can no longer do
  • Profound sadness about all the suffering in the world
  • Anger at no one in particular because so much is out of your control
  • Disappointment over missed weddings, parties, holidays
  • Fear that you or your loved ones might die
  • Guilt that actually you’re having quite a nice time right now

All of these are fine (though I don’t think you need to feel guilty about being content). Often it’s not our feelings that cause us a problem, it’s the thoughts and judgements we wrap around them:

  • “I shouldn’t feel like this”
  • “I hate feeling like this. How can I make it stop?”
  • “I should pull myself together”
  • “If I give in to feeling like this, I’ll just wallow in it”

It seems common sense to pull away from your negative feelings but actually, research suggests that this can be bad for you. You’re denying your own reality, which can’t be psychologically healthy. Feelings are like weather; they come and they go. You don’t necessarily have to do anything with them. Instead of distracting yourself, try just noticing and labelling them – “I feel really irritated at the moment”, “I am very frightened”. Simply naming emotions tames them, as it gives you some distance from the experience. (That first link is a 4 minute video, here’s a longer read if you prefer).

So if you’re feeling fine right now, that’s great. We could all benefit from finding moments of joy and things to be grateful for. But if you’re not, let go of the judgement and just let yourself be. And if you’re a business leader and you’d value some support, do get in touch:


Photo credit

Tristan Duplichain

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