Why is it so hard to practice self-compassion? For most of us, responding with compassion for others’ pain and difficulty comes easily. We have empathy for their struggle and offer our support. Watching someone in pain is hard for us.
Unless it is our pain, then it is all too easy to dismiss or disregard our own discomfort.
Sometimes, the meanest person in the room is us. We simply can’t be nice to ourselves.
What is Self-Compassion?
In her best-selling book “Self-Compassion,” Dr. Kristen Neff describes compassion as “the recognition and clear seeing of suffering.” She also says it involves “feelings of kindness for those suffering and the desire to help. These feelings are based in the foundation of realizing our shared human condition, both flawed and fragile.”
Self-compassion then takes the same qualities and applies them to our own pain. We must stop to recognize and allow our own suffering to be true. And then we must take compassionate action toward our own struggle and pain.
Why Is it So Hard to Be Nice to Yourself?
Picture this: you miss a deadline for work, and your inner voice starts to taunt you: “You’re such a failure. Why can’t you do anything right?” Or maybe your friend got a promotion, and instead of being happy for her, you feel jealous and start questioning your worth. Sounds familiar?
If you can relate to this behavior, you’re not alone. Being nice to ourselves is tough. It’s much easier to be hard on ourselves than to practice self-compassion and forgiveness. We are so unaware of our own critical thoughts that we fail to understand why self-compassion is hard or how our inner critic develops.
And most importantly, we are utterly unaware of how we might benefit from the regular practice of self-compassion.
Everybody Wants To Be A Winner
To understand why self-compassion is hard, we need to take a deep dive into our beliefs and values. Society teaches us to be competitive and strive for perfection, which often leads to self-criticism. We hold ourselves to high standards, and when we don’t meet them, we’re quick to judge ourselves. Honestly, we don’t even consider giving ourselves the same grace and kindness we give to others.
We messed up; we must make sure that we punish ourselves for being human.
Think about it: would you talk to your friends the way you talk to yourself? Probably not.
If you were to speak aloud the unkind words that you use against yourself, you would be shocked! Most of us have a daily practice of self-criticism and self-judgement. Unaware of our own words, we repeat the idea that we are lazy, a loser, or that we need to toughen up.
Why Am I Such A Loser?
We all have a personal inner bully waiting to jump on us as soon as we make a mistake. As fast as a flash of lightning, we are slamming our appearance, our missed workout, and the pants that are too tight. We fail to see the circumstances that have kept us from working out, the stress that is making us overeat; we just know that we are a lazy loser.
And everyone knows that losers are not winners.
We bury ourselves in another layer of self-rejection. And we wonder why we struggle to feel happy or content in our daily lives.
Where Does The Inner Critic Come From?
But why do we have that inner critic in the first place? According to research, our inner critic begins in childhood when we receive feedback and criticism from parents, teachers, and other authority figures. These experiences shape our beliefs about ourselves and impact our self-esteem. For example, if a child constantly hears they’re not good enough, they’re likely to develop a critical inner voice that they carry into adulthood.
Thanks, Mom and Dad!
Don’t worry; we aren’t going to ride the parent “blame train” for too long. But we need to acknowledge that our earliest childhood experiences shape us. We learn how to get love and how to give love. Our behavior and choices are shaped by the voices of those who were in charge of our daily care and safety. And the truth is, most of our parents did the best they could with the skills they had.
Because of cultural expectations around children, most kids grow up learning to stuff or ignore their emotions. When the pain becomes too great, they might turn to addictive substances to remain numb. It is tough to develop self-compassion when you live disconnected from your deeper emotions. Generations were raised this way, to be self-resilent and hard-working. Complaining was not allowed, and it might have even been punished.
Self-Judgement Can Keep You Stuck
Being a hard worker and self-reliant are great personal strengths to have. But when you fail to acknowledge your pain or despair, your inner strength becomes a silent cage. Stuck in your emotions, battling the growing self-judgment in your brain, you repeat the cycle of self-critical thoughts.
As a trained therapist, I have worked with many clients who struggle with self-compassion. Many of my clients were raised to believe that someone always had it “worse,” so they should be grateful for their life. Admittedly, living with gratitude is generally a good way to live, but comparing your pain to another person’s pain is not productive.
Inner Critic Example
Years ago, I had a client who would measure her emotional pain against the horror of sex trafficking. For her, there was nothing worse than the evil of sex trafficking. So, when she would begin to feel emotional pain or have some legitimate complaint about her life, she would use the comparison to silence herself.
Her thought process went like this: She had no right to speak or feel pain; at least she wasn’t being sex trafficked.
By comparing herself to another person’s nightmare, she effectively shut down her compassion for herself. She had nothing to complain about, not when she used the ruler of great social injustice.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The Voices in Your Head
Before fixing our inner bully, we must identify the voices and thoughts that keep us stuck in self-judgment. The following is a list of negative thought patterns paired with a response based in self-compassion.
As you read through this list, note if any of these common negative thought cycles are familiar to you. If you are like most people, at least two or three negative thought cycles will repeat in your brain.
Common Negative Thought Cycles
- Perfectionism: I can’t do anything right, so why bother trying?
- Alternative: It’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them. Everyone makes mistakes, and it doesn’t mean I’m not capable or smart.
- Overgeneralization: Everything I do is wrong.
- Alternative: Not everything I do is wrong. There are some things that I am doing well, and it’s important to recognize my successes and failures.
- Catastrophizing: If I don’t get this right, then it will be a disaster!
- Alternative: Even if things don’t turn out the way I expect them to, there are still solutions and ways to move forward. It’s not the end of the world if one thing doesn’t go my way.
- Personalization: This is all my fault and there’s nothing anyone else can do about it.
- Alternative: Other people have their own choices and can help me in this situation even though it may have been caused by something that I did or didn’t do.
- Minimization & Magnification: This isn’t a big deal; no one will care if I don’t finish this project on time/This is the worst thing that has ever happened; no one understands what I’m going through right now.
- Alternative: This may be a difficult situation, but many other people have gone through similar circumstances before me – they understand what I’m feeling and how hard this is for me right now. And while this project is important, other tasks need to be done as well – taking care of myself should also be a priority in order to keep myself sane in the long run!
- Emotional Reasoning: If I feel bad about something then it must mean that it’s true/I must be bad at this because everyone else seems to think so too.
- Alternative: Just because others may think something doesn’t mean that it’s true. Everyone has their own opinion, and just because someone else may think something about me doesn’t necessarily make it true either! It’s important for me to take a step back and assess the situation objectively without letting emotions cloud my judgment too much!
- Labeling & Stereotyping: People like me aren’t good at making decisions/I’m always going to mess up, so why bother trying?
- Alternative: Everyone makes mistakes sometimes; it doesn’t define who we are as individuals or make us any less capable of achieving our goals when we put our minds to them! We all have strengths and weaknesses, but focusing on our strengths can help us overcome our weaknesses over time with dedication and effort!
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: If I can’t do something perfectly, then there’s no point in doing it at all/I messed up once, so now everything is ruined forever
- Alternative: Mistakes happen – they don’t define us or ruin our progress forever; instead, they provide valuable lessons that ultimately help us become better versions of ourselves in the long run!
Self-Compassion Can Be Developed
The good news is that self-compassion can be developed. It begins with treating ourselves like a good friend: with kindness, understanding, and acceptance. It’s not about being self-indulgent or letting ourselves off the hook; it’s about acknowledging our humanity and imperfections.
One of the best ways to practice self-compassion is to become aware of our self-talk. This is a helpful, effective method of identifying your inner bully cycles. Once you become aware of how you talk to yourself, you will be shocked at how mean you are!
Why Am I So Mean to Myself?
When we have negative thoughts, we can challenge them and replace them with more positive and compassionate ones. For example, instead of saying, “I’m such a failure,” we can say, “I did my best, and that’s all I can do.”
Recognizing our negative self-talk patterns is a foundational step toward practicing self-compassion. Like we say in therapy, “ We repeat what we don’t repair!”
Learning to be compassionate to yourself will positively impact other parts of your emotional health, including increased self-esteem, resilience, and well-being. When we’re kinder to ourselves, we’re less likely to dwell on mistakes and beat ourselves up over them. We’re also more likely to try again and learn from them.
Additionally, self-compassion helps us cultivate positive relationships with ourselves and others. When we are compassionate towards ourselves, we’re more likely to extend that compassion to others and create a more positive environment around us.
Hey, Give Yourself a Break
Self-compassion is critical for our personal growth and well-being. It’s not just about being nice to ourselves; it’s about treating ourselves with the kindness and understanding we deserve. Our inner critic may have been developed in childhood, but we have the power to change it.
By intentionally practicing self-compassion, we can increase our self-esteem, resilience, and happiness. It will take time to develop awareness around your negative self-talk, but when you do catch yourself being hard on yourself, try practicing self-compassion.
Being authentically kind and compassionate to yourself will change your life!
Melane Ann is a writer, blogger, and life coach. In 2020, she turned her experience in midlife divorce and creating a new life for herself into midlifeismagical. With a master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Melane focuses on helping women over 50 navigate their relationships and commit to healthy aging. She and her new husband share 7 children between them. Melane jokes that she has a black belt in blended families! In addition to her writing, Melane works virtually with her coaching clients from her home office.