Self Compassion

If you are like me, you also lack self compassion. It means you do not love yourself enough and accept yourself the way you are. Probably you are also a perfectionist which goes hand in hand. Ironically, you can be a very compassionate person to the others. You can feel their pain as well as pleasure, have lots of empathy, you may want help others and easily forgive their severest mistakes. Yet, when it comes to you it is a different story.

How does lack of self compassion manifest itself? In sum, you predominantly have negative thoughts about yourself. You are not smart enough, slim enough, successful enough, not a good enough dancer, not a good enough mother…You see the connection with perfectionism? You create a totally unrealistic figure of the perfect you and you constantly judge yourself and punish yourself for not being that. You do not realize that no human being can be that perfect figure simply because we are humans and we cannot be flawless. Instead of saying “well, I am the way I am and I am enough”, you nonstop worry about not having performed good enough. Performing is the keyword here.

People without self compassion define their worth according to how well they perform anything. It goes like: I have succeeded in managing these 5 projects, so I am a good project manager, so I am worth existing. It follows that if I did not succeed I do not deserve to exist. Similarly: I have danced the whole night with the best dancers, so I am a good dancer, so people love me because I dance well, so I deserve to exist.  Which also means if I do not dance well, people do not love me and I should not exist. Welcome existential fear. To avoid that fear we madly try to become perfect and enter a vicious cycle.

The reasons for lack of self compassion come from our childhood. No surprise. We might have been raised up in a family that values perfection, performance and achievement. For example, you may have been rewarded if your room was always clean and tidy, if you did not cry, if you did not ask for things. You may have been punished otherwise. As a result, you learned that to be loved and appreciated by your parents, whom you depend on to exist, you have to perform well. Your being loved depends on a condition, which propagates to the later stages of your life. In the end, you do not know what is unconditional love, so that you cannot love yourself unconditionally either.

Once I understood the concept, I started to work on it. I have to say it is very hard work, at least for me. Some days I succeed, some days I fail. Everyday I practice to embrace myself the way I am. If I put on 2 kilos I try to tell myself it does not change the fact that I have friends who like me with or without my 2 kilos, that I am still healthy and free. If I fail in a job interview, I try to analyze what happened and if there is anything I can improve on my side for the next one. Yet, I do not go around saying to myself I am not good enough, smart enough etc. Instead, I try to think of all my accomplishments until now. I may reread my CV to remind me of those. If I have a quarrel or conflict with someone, I try to understand the situation and put myself in her shoes before I jump start blaming myself for the things I did or said wrong. She may also be on her bad day and not being fair to me. And most importantly I breathe a lot. We forget to breathe so easily because we are so carried away by our thoughts, beliefs and fears. Breathing calls me back to here and now and releases a lot of tension from my body.

Finally, there is a researcher I discovered, Dr. Kristin Neff, who works on self compassion and whose findings helped me quite much. Here are the daily short exercises she recommends. Here is her website, Self Compassion.org, which has lots of resources and a TED talk. I read her book as well, which I recommend if you have time or want to take the time for it.

When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by. For why should I fear any consequence from my mistakes, when I’m able to say, “See that you don’t do it again, but now I forgive you.”

Seneca