Why Self-Compassion is Crucial for Mental Health - Humantold

Why Self-Compassion is Crucial for Mental Health

Michael Bohuski MHC-LP June 14, 2024

Learning self-compassion can help you transform your relationship with yourself and your mental wellbeing.

Think of the kindest person you know, either real or fictional. An individual so sensitive to the needs of others, so forthcoming with tender attentiveness, and dependable in a crisis. The kind of person you want to have in your corner when you’re going through something. I hope you have the good fortune of knowing someone like that. I also hope to inform you, if you haven’t already heard, that you can learn to be that kind of person toward yourself. And that learning this skill can be a game changer. So much so that it is now recognized as a crucial element of effective therapy.

Self-Compassion

If compassion is the name for what the kindest person you know has in abundance, then self-compassion is what we would call it when it’s addressed, “To: Me, From: Me”. Kristin Neff, the psychologist who first made self-compassion the subject of scientific research, has described it as “loving, connected presence.” That’s shorthand for the three-legged stool of (1) mindfulness, or recognition of the present situation for what it is, (2) common humanity, the sense of being in the same boat as other humans, on a basic level, and (3) kindness, that attitude discussed above, that wishes people well and that hopes to ease suffering, directed toward yourself. When these three factors align, our whole relationship with ourselves is transformed.

Self-Talking Back to Critical Self-Talk

Self-talk is that inner monologue we’re always silently carrying on with ourselves in the privacy of our minds. A negative style of self-talk can be a big part of what keeps us depressed and anxious. If you are in the habit of taking a harsh, judgemental tone with yourself, imagine those words and that tone being directed at you from somebody else’s mouth. Hearing that, you might rightfully feel outraged that someone had the audacity to speak to you that way. You’d probably be fuming, heart rate rising and muscles tensing, cursing your accuser. Chances are you feel similarly on the receiving end of that kind of self-talk, even though you’re the one generating it. (To test this for yourself, the next time you notice any critical self-talk going on inside your head, shift some attention toward your bodily sensations and emotions. Become familiar with your unique inner responses to your own self-criticism. Your negative self-talk is likely increasing your stress responses!) So, if you’re noticing that some form of distress tends to follow directly from self-criticism, then the question we must bravely ask ourselves is this: if critical self-talk makes things worse, is there an alternative? It turns out there are more effective ways to talk to ourselves.

Let’s Not Make This Any Harder Than It Needs To Be

Self-compassion does the same job the inner critic is trying to do, it just does it in a way that is gentler on the nervous system. When we notice our suffering and respond to it kindly, we remain calmer and more in control, better able to choose our next actions wisely. People who have gotten the hang of being self-compassionate experience fewer and less intense emotional spirals. And it’s never too late to switch into self-compassion mode! Even in the heat of a spiral that has been going on for several minutes, or even for most of the day, any moment is a good moment to bring self-compassion into the picture. In fact, that’s often how it goes when you’re first learning this stuff. First it helps you fight fires, then, gradually, it begins to help you prevent them.

Putting The “Self” in Self-Compassion

When I led group workshops on the topic of self-compassion, my number one takeaway message to participants was always this: make this stuff your own. Though I guided the groups through standard exercises from published sources, the emphasis was always on encouraging group members to imagine how they might customize the practices and seamlessly weave them into their lives. In individual therapy, your therapist can directly support you in making each practice your own. It may be a matter of developing a mantra, a few simple words that remind you of exactly what you need to hear when the going gets tough. When you choose words that are meaningful to you, the mantra will be truly your own and will serve you well. You might need to find a form of soothing touch that feels comfortable and appropriate for you. Crucially, it helps to identify the typical kinds of moments in your life when a self-compassionate response would do you the most good. Understanding when to use the tools in real life is as important as having them available.

An Aside about Self-Esteem

What about that other self-hyphenated buzzword, self-esteem? Your estimation of your own self-worth, heavily influenced as it is by your perception of how others regard you, is called self-esteem, and it’s a healthy thing to have, as far as it goes. It just has some limitations that are worth mentioning here. Self-esteem is an evaluation, so it is always based on performance and recognition. (Or just recognition, as the everybody-gets-a-trophy excesses of the self-esteem movement showed us.) Therefore, to feel good about ourselves on the basis of self-esteem requires a steady stream of pats on the back. Even if your level of self-esteem is usually pretty high, you’re unlikely to feel much of it during a moment of failure or misfortune. Self-compassion is available anytime, unconditionally, even in our worst moments. It’s based on commonality, the understanding that we all have moments like this, rather than on comparison. Self-compassion connects us to our shared humanity, while self-esteem, needing to stand out to feel good, can actually disconnect us.

ConclusionWhen therapy is not infused with a spirit of self-compassion, it can easily become an arsenal of weapons for your inner critic to hurl at you. Coping skills? I need to learn better ones! Mindfulness? I need to get better at that! Thinking errors? I need to stop making those! Just writing this is making me anxious. But it’s alright, because therapy can also be a place to learn how to let love lead the way. I invite you to take a moment to think about how your life could be different if you had a calm, supportive friend available to you 24/7. Just imagining that possibility is a step forward on the road to being more self-compassionate.

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