Self Compassion – an antidote to low self-esteem, anxiety & perfectionism

Self Compassion:

An antidote to perfectionism, low self-esteem, anxiety and almost anything…

I had the privilege of sitting with a client today who had been struggling for some time with some persisting ‘painful’ patterns of thinking. She shared with me that through exploring the concept of becoming gentle and “compassionate” with herself when these ‘painful’ thoughts came up, rather than getting annoyed, impatient and pushing them away – that this different approach had begun to change the whole experience for her, for the better.

She also looked different and sounded different. Stronger and self assured perhaps?  The only way I can sum it up, was that she looked like she was “on her own side” and nicer to herself.

Benefits of Self Compassion on our mental health & relationship health…

Many of us find it difficult to extend a warm and patient tenderness towards ourselves and our own insecurities or stuff ups.  But the benefits can be surprising.

Self compassion is often spoken about by almost anyone who practices & teaches Mindfulness – Buddhist & Yogi teachers, Psychotherapists and meditations teachers throughout the world. It is also lumped into the same bucket as “self-care”.

But in my experience not many people even know what “self-care” really is, nor “get” the concept nor “practice” being kind to themselves. Yes “practice” – because it has to be a practice and must be practiced regularly, until those neural networks in our brain are gradually re-wired and we then learn to do it automatically. I think it is the biggest hurdle I have faced myself & continue to face, and the biggest hurdle I witness in those I work with.

What does it really mean to be compassionate with ourselves?

I read a great article a few months back which stuck with me about the confusion of what self-care actually constitutes. The title was what shouted out at me and was something like…

“Self-care is a lot more than just getting an F##king Mani & Pedi” (or translated – self-care is a lot more involved than just getting a manicure and pedicure – for those who aren’t into nail polish).

Self-care can definitely be a mani & pedi but it is way more than just that. In our consumerist culture where being kind to ourselves can be an excuse to spend up big and get that new gadget or sparkly new thing. We need to be careful. Sure, that may be compassionate to ourselves if our old “not so sparkly anymore thing” has given up the ghost. But this action could also be veiled in an unconscious need for perfectionism or masking our addiction to having more more more, and that euphoric dopamine hit we often desire. It won’t feel very compassionate or tender if we are in debt painfully paying off what we gave to ourselves in a splurge of so called self-care.

Self care & self compassion – as loving kindness towards ourselves

I love the how Tara Brach a Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher talks on self-compassion. She often speaks about having loving kindness towards ourselves, which is also a Buddhist teaching. And if we don’t quite know how to do that as an adult, because perhaps it wasn’t modelled ideally or consistently to us when we were a young child? Then go ahead and borrow those missing qualities you need internally from an external source, until they become your own integrated internal qualities.

This quality or person could be real, or made up. Perhaps that quality is modelled by someone in a TV series role; or a movie celeb you admire the way they seem to be kind & present to themselves, their friends or their children. Or maybe someone in your past when you were growing up – a teacher or perhaps a mum of an old school friend who was yummy and compassionate, present, attentive, with gentle yet firm boundaries. Or it could be a caring therapist or friend.

When it comes to self-compassion and self-care towards ourselves, we may need to borrow these qualities from these role models until we learn to do this for ourselves. We need to be willing to gently move towards being the steady, patient, loving, kind, compassionate, present care giver towards ourselves – no matter how old we are. This is especially important in the times when we are nervous, scared and feel like we have made a mistake, then we need that kind and compassionate internal voice more than ever. An internal kind voice who can be on our own team if it has been our tendency not to be.

The way I look at it is that self-compassion and self-care overlap and can be one and the same. But for some reason I see self-care as the more physical aspects of looking after ourselves & self-compassion the internal dialogue that leads to our actions. You may think about it differently.

Some examples of Self care and compassion could be…

  • taking a nap
  • saying no this week to working overtime
  • getting that Uni or school assignment in on time or even early
  • paying your bills on time, willingly and graciously
  • having an unplugged day free from computers, phone and any technology
  • getting quality sleep
  • doing that yoga or dance class that’s been on your radar
  • surrounding yourself with supportive and kind people
  • spending an extra 3 breaths even when you are rushing, to enjoy the warmth and calm of a hot shower
  • going for a walk and noticing where your mind wonders to
  • going for a walk and not taking your phone
  • saying no when you really want to say no
  • saying yes when you really want to say yes
  • paying attention to learning the truth and difference in your yes’s and no’s
  • beginning to learn to notice when you are not breathing (this helps to regulate our “nervous system” -as we naturally have a very nervous system)
  • learning to notice when you constrict your body and stop breathing (with compassion, not with an eye-rolling impatience) and just breath gently again. In through the nose and out through the mouth.

Etc, etc, etc…

If we are kind to others, why not ourselves also?

Most of us humans find it so difficult to be tender, kind, compassionate and understanding to ourselves. Yet ironically, usually we would offer that same warmth, tenderness and compassion to a friend, small child or helpless animal who is struggling or having a bad day.

So why not ourselves?  Maybe pretend that we have that little child or puppy or kitten within ourselves. It needs regular healthy food, clean water, regular bed times, being spoken to with encouragement and a gentle voice etc. Whatever method you use, practice it again and again.

Somewhere in the learning many of us have been taught to think of others before ourselves. This is especially ‘in ground’ within women, but I know far too many men who also do this practice. The paradox is that when we are truly kind, compassionate and gentle with ourselves, we are automatically that way with those around us – but in a more honest authentic way and with no leaking out resentment. As they say on the plane, put the oxygen mask on yourself before your companions or children.

Not using self compassion or self care as an excuse for avoidance

For me, self-care and self-compassion is not about avoiding everything and anything that causes me discomfort and kicks in a fear, flight, flight limbic system response in my brain. It is about bringing a gentle loving enquiry (and soft breath) to the discomfort and fear. It may be the most compassionate and self-caring thing for me NOT to avoid whatever it is, and take that risk.

For more information…

If you are interested in reading more on self-care and self-compassion check Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (and her famous TED talk on youtube); The Art of Extreme Self-care by Cheryl Richardson; and for those who don’t mind the “F” word and a need a laugh, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F##k by Sarah Knight…funny and cheeky but pretty good at outlining basic self-care and boundaries. For information on Tara Brach visit here or download her podcasts and meditations which are highly grounded in neuroscience and psychology.

Choosing self care and self compassion is an ongoing daily (or hourly and at times each minute) practice of mindfulness towards choosing this way of living. One which I imagine will go on for the remainder of my life. At times I will achieve it more artfully than others. It is definitely not about doing anything perfectly…for me it is just about being willing to begin, and choose it – or should I say choose ourselves rather than reject ourselves.

Category: mental health, mindfulness

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