Relationship with Self: Understanding Self-Compassion

When getting to know and understand my patients, I always ask the following: When life becomes stressful and difficult, do you tend to ignore your emotional pain, or do you stop to care for and nurture your pain? Most of my patients admit to ignoring their emotional pain, or the thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable and distressing. For many of us, it seems easier to just suppress, bury, shut down, or swallow our inner suffering – to push through the pain. There are numerous reasons why we tend ignore, or push through, our pain. For many, it is a learned response and we simply do not know what it means or how to nurture our emotional pain. Although this may be a common human reaction, it does not mean it is the healthiest way to treat our emotional pain. In fact, we have found it is through ignoring our pain that we reinforce a lack of self-compassion, which leads me to my next follow-up questions: What does self-compassion mean to you? What images, thoughts, or feelings come up for you as you try to understand self-compassion? I wonder if your response is similar to those I have heard countless times – might you find yourself saying that it means: “Taking care of myself, like eating well and exercising, or spending time with family/friends and doing things that I enjoy to be kind to myself.” Now, I am not saying there is a right or wrong way to understand such a subjective concept, but I can tell you that although a response likes this falls under the umbrella of self-compassion, it is missing the mark – a very important mark. 

There are many misconceptions about what it means to be self-compassionate, the most common is confusing it with self-care. Although the two are related in many ways, self-compassion expands much further than you might know. Self-care can be understood as doing things for yourself that are important or healthy to you, such as eating and sleeping well, making time to enjoy a morning meditation, going out to dinner with a loved one, or “treating yourself” in some way. I see it as taking advantage of your “outer world” to build your “inner world.” Self-compassion, on the other hand, is treating your inner world in an understanding and accepting way. When I refer to our inner world, I mean our thoughts, memories, emotions, and values. It is more of an intrapersonal way of talking and relating to ourselves, and most importantly, the parts of ourselves that we tend to be ashamed or afraid of. When we are afraid or ashamed of something, we tend to ignore it. We all have our wounds and injuries. We live with experiences that have led us to feel guilty, embarrassed, or angry with ourselves. Consequently, many of us develop a strong “inner critic,” or that voice inside our head that harshly criticizes and judges the parts of ourselves we are not proud of. The inner critic may sound like, “What is wrong with you? Did you really fail again? Can’t you get anything right? You will never be good enough. You are weak, unattractive, foolish, etc. People can see this and they will judge you.” Does that voice sound at all familiar? It does to me, as I am sure it does to you and everyone else you know. We all vary in terms of how strong this voice is, but trust me when I say it exists to some extent in all of us. This voice, for some, can be quite adaptive and motivating, and helps us to achieve our goals. For others, this voice has become maladaptive and weakens our confidence, self-esteem, and sense of worth.

Believe it or not, I have strong compassion for the inner critic, because it is actually trying to protect us in some way. It developed when we were young children in response to adverse childhood experiences and tried to keep us from emotional pain. For many, this voice is similar the voices of our parents or caretakers, as we picked up on their negativity and attitudes towards not only us, but themselves. We all came by this inner critic honestly, and it is understanding that we do not choose to be unkind to ourselves, but have simply learned to, is key to changing how we relate to ourselves. It is this mindset that gives us a sense of control and hope for change, because it is now just a matter of relearning a different way to respond to ourselves and our emotional pain, rather than it being an inherent part of ourselves we have no control over. A major takeaway from this blog post is to help you develop an understanding for your inner critic. When we can explain and understand the voice that drives our inner critic, we develop compassion for ourselves – the good, the bad, and the ugly. We move from accepting, rather than being ashamed of, the parts of ourselves that we judge and dislike. 

Self-compassion, as you can see, is more than self-care or being kind to yourself. It is an entirely different way of relating to your “self” and your inner critic. Developing a relationship with your “self” is imperative to navigating the inevitable stressors of being human, as it makes us stronger. What is even more beautiful than just enhancing your self-compassion is the positive consequences of increased self-compassion. It improves your self-esteem (your perceived confidence in your worth, to include how confident you are with managing your thoughts and emotions), self-concept (your identity), and ultimately your authenticity (for more on what it means to be authentic as illustrated here, I recommend you read this article: When we can be more of our authentic selves, we achieve such a strong sense of what I call “emotional freedom.” A fellow psychologist once told me that “if we all knew how to be authentic, there would be no need for therapists,” and I wholeheartedly believe that. 

So, what is it that you can do to shift that voice from being an inner critic to an inner nurturer? There are many ways to do this, and I recommend you explore your options with a therapist. However, here are simple techniques I have found to be helpful in my work both personally and professionally that you can start trying now:

  • To develop a relationship with your self, ask how you would go about developing a relationship with another person – you would introduce yourself, engage in conversation, and get to know them. There are many ways you can do this with your self. I recommend a combination of expressive journaling and actually talking to yourself out loud. When journaling, engage in a dialogue between the two opposing parts of your self – the inner critic and the inner nurturer. Allow the inner critic to have a voice on paper and in an unfiltered way – tune in to your pain and how you are judging/criticizing yourself. Then respond in a nurturing way, as if you were talking to a close friend or loved one. Even if the voice of the inner nurturer does not feel “real,” stay with it, as the more you “play the part” the more it will actually become a real part of yourself. When I mentioned talking to yourself out loud, this may seem like a strange thing to do, but don’t write it off until you try it. When you give an actual voice to your inner critic and inner nurturer, our brain hears and processes it differently, resulting in a different emotional experience than you would get when engaging in this dialogue internally (in your head). Speak aloud the voice of the inner critic and then the voice of the inner nurturer, and to take it a step further, place your hand on your chest when doing so. This outward dialogue and placing your hand on your chest actually generates oxytocin!

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