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Self-Compassion: Be Good to Ourselves

In my previous blog, I discussed how it is important to refrain from harshly judging others. What about ourselves? I often find that we can be much more critical of ourselves than we are of other people. How many times have you done something…well, let’s just say “not too wise”…and you said to yourself (aloud or in your head) something like, “I’m such an idiot!”?  For most of us, we would NEVER say that to a friend or loved one. Truth is, we ALL do silly, unwise, impulsive things from time-to-time. None of us are exempt. However, we tend to show others more compassion and patience than we do with ourselves.

I can remember as a high school tennis player, I could get very down on myself during matches and be pretty self-critical. While not exactly behaving outwardly like John McEnroe (if you are young enough to remember him play tennis – whew!), inwardly, I often had negative rants going on in my head. Now, when I played doubles in tennis, I would NEVER get down on my partner…even in my head. What was up with that? I was much more forgiving of his mistakes – why not my own?

I’ve learned a lot since those days. Being so critical is not helpful. Now, this isn’t to say that we should not notice mistakes and try to correct them. We need that process – it’s fundamental to self-growth. But there is a BIG difference between judging ourselves in blanketing, harsh terms (e.g, “I’m such an idiot,” “I’m the stupidest person on Earth,” “I’m such a loser”) versus being more constructively critical (e.g., “I should not have put off my Christmas shopping until the last minute. Next time, I will start shopping early,” “Note to self: don’t email someone when angry. Cool off first, review the email, and edit before sending”).

To our friends and loved ones, we are often forgiving and supportive when they make mistakes. We should be good to ourselves as well. In effect, we need to be our own best friend. It might sound a bit trite, but I think it is true. I mean, what is the point in being so down on ourselves? We don’t treat our friends that way…why don’t we? Because it would hurt their feelings as well as our overall relationship with them. Well, we want to have a positive relationship with ourselves.

Yes, we will make mistakes but just judge them as that. Mistakes don’t mean that we are bad people or imbeciles  It just means that we are human. We can not eliminate all of our mistakes. That is beyond our power. But we can learn and grow from them. And we can do that better if we focus on what those errors are instead of shifting the focus from the specific problem to vilifying ourselves.  In effect, when we do this, we take our eyes off the ball (the specific mistake) and beat ourselves down to the extent that we often feel depressed and demoralized altogether. It’s difficult to work on improving ourselves when we feel so beaten down.

Imagine if your favorite sports team, after a loss, just collectively said (coaches and players), “We suck!” and didn’t review tapes, troubleshoot, and come up with changes and new strategies for the next game. When we say to ourselves, “I’m worthless,” it doesn’t tell us a way out of that character assassination. It is just a comprehensive negative assessment of the self. In contrast, when we keep our eyes on the specific error, then we can start focusing our energies on thinking of solutions.

Put another way, think of Jesus’ Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Now, we can leave the religious part out of here (don’t want to get into those debates!) and just look at this as a moral teaching. Other religious and spiritual traditions also have some form of the “Golden Rule” because it is a good rule to use to guide our lives. Regarding negative self-judgements, there is a reverse of this rule that could also be quite powerful and a good rule of thumb to live by: Do unto yourself as you do unto others.

So, try to be at least as compassionate to yourself as you are of your friends and family. The term that is being used nowadays for this beneficial construct and approach is called self-compassion. Being kind to ourselves isn’t just about giving ourselves saccharine platitudes. Having positive relationships is essential to our happiness and well-being, and this includes having a positive relationship with ourselves. So, we should all practice being good to ourselves – doing so helps us to learn and grow, which is was we are meant to do in life.

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