Self-compassion is acceptance
Self-compassion has become a popular concept over the past 20 years and is encouraged as a means of enhancing overall well-being. The basic idea is that you should be as compassionate (kind) toward yourself as you would be toward another person you care about. When struggling with a difficult situation, self-compassion means accepting two things. One is the fact that difficult moments are a natural part of life. Difficult moments affect everyone on the planet. The other fact to accept is that struggle is just as inevitable for you as it is for everyone. That does not make you ‘not okay.’ It makes you Human.
Struggle is as natural a part of life as are eating, sleeping, and pooping. Across the span of human history there is nothing to suggest that our natural condition is one of uninterrupted serenity. In fact, most of our history is one of struggle, and most of our greatest accomplishments have been born of struggle. It is discomfort, the desire for something better, that drives effort.
Harvard Medical School psychologist Dr. Susan David brilliantly states,
“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Thinking organisms like us humans need puzzles to solve, barriers to overcome, and mountains to climb. Without them, life is flat. You might say that we are built to struggle.
Hence, self-compassion begins with recognizing that when you struggle, whether it be with emotions or behaviors, you do not deserve criticism. To the contrary, this is what being human entails. If the struggle is especially tough, you deserve compassion and permission to not excel, permission to screw up, to need help, and permission to sometimes just plain check out. Self-compassion is the bedrock of self-care and ultimately of success.
My favorite mantra
Sucks to be me right now.
Let’s unpack that.
When you say, “Sucks to be me right now,” you acknowledge that you are feeling crappy. It is a fact, not a judgement. You are not saying, “I am sucky” which would suggest you, as a person, suck. You are saying, “Right now my situation is uncomfortable.” That’s it.
Notice the “right now” part of the statement. Right now your situation sucks. It did not necessarily suck last Tuesday, nor will it necessarily suck by nightfall. The suckiness is anchored in this moment in time. It does not define your entire existence, and most certainly does not define you.
The circumstance in which you currently find yourself definitely sucks. You are feeling discomfort—you may even be feeling downright distress. However, it is the circumstance, not you, and it is temporary.
Strength from struggle
The tag line under this website’s title is “Own your power” and I often mention that phrase in these blog posts. Self-compassion and acceptance of our inevitable struggle is the source of that power. When you truly accept that you are going to screw up, that life will never be an uninterrupted river of serenity, you rob the world of the ability to make you stay down when you stumble.
When you do get knocked down by circumstances, or simply screw up and stumble, you know this is normal and it is temporary. Instead of wasting precious energy beating yourself up, that energy is available to you to figure out the best next steps to take.
Self-compassion & beyond
When you are struggling with sucky circumstances and beating yourself up for not handling them the way you think you should, or wailing that the world is being unfair to you, take these best next steps.
- Ask yourself whether you would look down on a loved one who was in a similar situation. Would you think he or she is a loser, or would you recognize that sometimes bad things happen to good people and sometimes good people do bad things? Give yourself the same space to be human.
- If you are moaning and groaning the world is unfair, remember that the universe owes us nothing. Good fortune is a combination of effort and random luck. The sooner you stop spending your power complaining about fairness and shift your energy to problem-solving, the sooner fortune will shift for you.
- Identify and talk back to the cognitive distortions (habits) that may be making distress tolerance more difficult than it need be. I cannot know what distortions are most problematic for you, but I can tell you that the ones that almost always show up when I work on this with patients is that of emotional reasoning and catastrophizing.
- Emotional Reasoning is the belief that feelings always and directly reflect reality. For instance, “I feel overwhelmed therefore I am overwhelmed and cannot manage this.” Defy the distortion with corrective self-talk, “I may feel like I cannot get through this, but feelings are not in-the-world-real-things. I have gotten through rough spots in the past and I will get through this and future ones as well.”
- Catastrophizing is the habit of jumping from ‘this is bad’ to ‘this is a total catastrophic disaster’ without consideration of the infinite in-between points. For example, you may be thinking, “This is bad and it will keep getting worse until my life is a total mess.” (This example may seem a bit dramatic but I’ll wager that if you drill down into your thought process, you’ll find something like this at the bottom.) You can defy this distortion with a realistic reappraisal such as “This is bad but I’ve been through bad things in the past and there are steps I can take to manage this one. Rough as it feels, there are a thousand choices I can make between today’s suckiness and my life becoming a total mess!”
- Invest your energy in a realistic evaluation of your situation. There are multiple things that determine how difficult any given situation is. Along with the specifics of the situation itself, our physical condition (energy level, wellness), mindset (mood, cognitive habits, self-esteem), and other things going on in our life at the same time (situations, family, school, work) all come together to determine the size of the struggle.
- As you evaluate your situation, take a self-compassionate stance as you ask yourself three questions:
- Are there aspects of the situation that I realistically have the power or ability to change? And if there are, what is a sensible first step that I would recommend to a loved one who I did not expect to have super-powers or sacrifice her/his life to this situation? If the situation is not at all within your power to change, accept that you are a human in a tough situation.
- Are your expectations about how smoothly you should be able to navigate this situation realistic? Are you expecting yourself to be more, be able to do more than you would expect of someone else? (See Are You Enough?) Sometimes, the key to being able to do more, is to expect to do less. Setting the bar unrealistically high channels your energy into stretching to reach a bar that is simply out of your reach. Hence, you waste time chasing rainbows instead of effectively accomplishing what you need to do. Be as kind when you set your own standards as you are when you set expectations for others.
- Is your best next step to do nothing? In some circumstances, the most effective thing to do is nothing. If the demands of the situation are more than your current resources (energy, mood, support system) can manage, the best next step may simply be to rest. Of course I am not suggesting that you abandon your responsibilities every time you feel a little tired or out of sorts. I am, however, affirming that there are times at which the very best, most responsible thing you can do is give yourself space to catch your breath and refocus your perspective.
(For more about how to handle cognitive distortions, see A Diet is the Last Thing You Need: Weight Loss & Maintenance Answers, and several of the blogs on this site, in particular Cognitive Habits & Nice Girls & Goats.)
Gentle makes tough easier
Obese patients who come for help with weight loss are always shocked (and wonder whether they’ve picked a crazy psychologist) when I tell them we must begin by focusing on how wonderful and love-worthy their bodies are just as they are.
It takes so much less physical and mental energy to take care of something or someone we love than it does to do the same amount of work for something or someone we hate. Loving yourself makes it easier to do the work of taking care of yourself. Being gentle with yourself allows you to spend your energy on those things that matter, without wasting it on negative self judgements. It makes the tough stuff in life easier.