Are you a friend or a constant critic of yourself? Why is self-compassion worthwhile?
Are you sympathetic or judgmental about the qualities you don't like about yourself? Do you see your flaws as part of being human or do you think others surely are happier and better than you? Your answers to these questions may refer either to self-compassion or self-criticism.
What does self-compassion mean?
The word 'compassion' is familiar to most people. It is kindness, warmth and understanding towards others when facing failures or hard times. Self-compassion is about applying the same understanding to yourself. So instead of strict self-criticism and harsh judgment, we offer ourselves support when we fail and face difficulties in life. Self-compassion is manifested by being kind and appreciative of ourselves and taking care of ourselves without judgment.
American educational psychologist Kristin Neff has studied self-compassion extensively for the past twenty years and is known as the pioneer of self-compassion. According to Neff, the three elements of self-compassion are 1) being gentle and kind toward oneself when suffering or failing, 2) willingness to face all feelings mindfully and 3) recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human experience.
Self-compassion often manifests itself as a gentle and caring behaviour towards oneself, but, if necessary, it can also turn into somewhat more fiery behaviour, for example, in situations where the aim is to defend oneself or to motivate change. The idea of self-compassion is not to elevate oneself above others, rather to reinforce the idea that imperfection is normal.
Why is self-compassion worthwhile?
So what good is there about self-compassion? What makes it worth both practicing and learning more about? Studies have found connections between increased wellbeing, resilience and better mental health with self-compassion. At the same time, less anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts have appeared. It has also been observed that a person who practices self-compassion experiences stronger feelings of competence and autonomy. In the workplace, it can impact employees' happiness, performance and coping with challenges.
In this individualistic and competitive world, gentle behaviour towards oneself may seem like a surprising proposition. Shouldn't you, on the contrary, beat yourself up to ever harder performances? No, because self-compassion by no means equals laziness or a lack of ambition. Conversely: perseverance and taking responsibility may even increase with acts of self-compassion.
In studies among college students, those who practiced self-compassion experienced less fear of failure and were more motivated and self-confident than their non-self-compassionate peers. Hence, they dared to take on more challenges and chances. With the increased self-compassion, researchers have observed less procrastination with study assignments and fewer negative reactions to diverse situations.
One can also learn from mistakes. With the help of self-compassion, we may dare to face our mistakes and correct our actions. Without self-compassion, the feeling of shame quickly causes us to try to forget that we even failed – instead of stopping to analyze what went wrong.
Self-compassion also influences the sense of safety. For example, when we face an external threat, or one caused by self-criticism, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and causes a “fight, flight or freeze” reaction. Even envisioning compassion is enough to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and makes one see things and situations clearly, unlike in a state of fear. Instead of constant stress and burden, a person feels better and more positive. According to research, self-compassion may also reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic experience.
Self-compassion is not a question of selfishness or self-pity. Instead, according to research, practicing it increases compassion towards other people as well. When we realize that our mistakes and problems mean that we are humans, it is easier for us to create a connection with others. Instead of isolating from others when we are in a bad place, self-compassion makes us turn towards others. When loneliness is a growing individual and societal challenge, all steps towards another person are desired and needed.
What is the relationship between self-compassion and self-criticism?
Do you catch yourself thinking thoughts like How did I manage to screw this up? Everyone else, except me, knows how to do this task. My work has and will have no value, I'm just a nuisance. If so, that might be a rigorous inner critic talking.
Self-criticism shows as hard criticism, exacerbated problems, over-identification with the problems, and isolation from others. It has also been found to increase the likelihood of depression. While self-compassion encourages new challenges, self-criticism may cause anxiety, lack of motivation and incomplete performance. Harmful thoughts can crush all courage and enthusiasm.
In studies, self-criticism is often seen as the opposite of self-compassion. However, the results of the AllWell? study wellbeing questionnaire, conducted annually at Aalto, show that self-criticism and self-compassion are not directly dependent on each other. In the 2022 survey, with more than 2,000 respondents, a little more than half viewed themselves as either self-critical or somewhat self-critical. However, around 80 percent of the respondents had a sympathetic or somewhat sympathetic attitude towards themselves. The connection between self-criticism and self-compassion is, therefore, more complex.
Self-compassion is more than just stopping self-criticism. It is about constant compassion and care for oneself. Neff describes this as the ability to be emotionally present to oneself in difficult situations: being mindful of one's miseries and offering support and encouragement when needed. Self-compassion requires courage and the will to face unpleasant sensations instead of avoiding them. Learning to be mindful is, therefore, important!
The results of the AllWell? questionnaire show that self-criticism is common among Aalto students. Some studies have found that the surrounding culture may play a role in the contribution of self-compassion and self-criticism, depending on how they have traditionally been valued in the culture. It might be good to look at the culture of the university. Is self-criticism also common among the staff? In an environment where criticism is rampant, practicing self-compassion can seem challenging.
Compassionate pedagogy provides an essential perspective on this, delving into how a more compassionate attitude could and should be added to teaching. Valuing compassion as a professional quality and an element of the ethics of education could very well also help in the critical atmosphere of the university world, as Nyyti Ry's project The compassion in higher education has shown. On an individual level, you can start learning self-compassion with Aalto's Power of Imperfection online course.
Self-compassion is not a quality you are born with but a skill that can be developed and practiced. In the same way we learn programming or languages, we can also develop how we speak and treat ourselves. Kristin Neff emphasizes that self-compassion is a practical and healthy skill that allows everyone to reduce their own suffering, in every situation, at any given moment.
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