By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor
When you look in the mirror, do you see the face of a friend or an enemy?
The answer to this question can say a lot about your capacity for self-compassion—your ability to treat your with kindness and caring.
Penny Donnenfield, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in counseling caregivers and their families, says self-compassion is about being able to view oneself in the same way you would view a close friend—as a person deserving of love, support, and empathy.
Many of us have an inner task-master that inhibits our ability to view ourselves through an empathetic lens. “We’re all very familiar with criticizing and comparing ourselves to others—often in an unflattering light,” Donnenfeld says, “Self-compassion is about being able to nurture yourself.”
Research has linked an ability to nurture and love oneself with a bevy of psychological benefits, including: greater happiness, optimism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, as well as lower levels of anxiety, depression, and perfectionism.
Self-hatred fueled by failure
Chronically self-critical people are constantly fighting against feelings of inadequacy, says Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of “Making Change,” a Psychology Today blog, “People push themselves too much because they feel they need to work harder than everyone else just to be ‘okay,’” she says.
It makes sense that some people would feel this way. In today’s world of constant competition and instantaneous communication it can be hard to get away from outside criticism. This makes it all the more important for us to be able to cultivate feelings of self-acceptance and contentment within our own minds.
The first step towards increasing your capacity for self-compassion is recognizing that you’re a human being—and like all members of our race, you have limits.
You can choose whether to view these limits as personal short-comings deserving of punishment, or as natural frontiers that should be honored.
Becker-Phelps feels that self-awareness is an essential component of self-compassion. The compassionately self-aware person can acknowledge and attend to their needs for rest, relaxation, and health before they become burnt out.
If you find yourself beating your head against that proverbial brick wall, try taking a step back. Grab an ice-pack for your head. Once the swelling goes down and the throbbing stops, you might just be able to find the sledgehammer that can help you turn that bothersome barricade into a pile of dust.
Learning to love yourself
If you’re one of those people who has trouble befriending the face in the mirror, developing a more understanding view of yourself is likely to be a challenge. The good news is that it is possible to foster feelings of self-compassion.
Becker-Phelps suggests keeping a journal of daily successes and good deeds. Putting the things you’ve accomplished down on paper can help you become more aware of the positive impact you’re having on your life and the lives of the people around you, which may make it easier to forgive yourself for future short comings.
You can also explore what self-compassion means to you by contemplating the following questions:
1. What does love look like to you? Try to explore what loving yourself means to you. Would you set aside time to exercise, to relax? Would you take up that hobby that you gave up when you started taking care of your mother?
2. Is it really selfish? Donnenfeld points out that people often mistake self-compassion with selfishness or self-pity. But attending to your needs isn’t egoistic—it’s essential. Self-compassionate people often find that they have more energy and love to give to others because they’re not so preoccupied with their own feelings of failure.
3. What would you tell your best friend? If a close friend was in your situation and came to you for help what advice would you give them? You would probably tell them that feeling overwhelmed is a natural response to their circumstances and that they should try to relax and get some rest. Having limits is part of being human, but people often find it easier to see and accept the limits of those they love as opposed to their own.
4. How would you speak to a child? Becker-Phelps says that this technique is particularly useful for people who have children of their own. Imagine your kid comes to you, crying and overwhelmed, chances are you wouldn’t tell them to, “Just suck it up and deal.” Try applying the same gentleness to yourself and your situation that you would to your son or daughter.
Self-love won’t increase your odds of becoming narcissistic. It won’t cause you to neglect the important people in your life and it doesn’t mean that you love them any less—in fact it’s quite the opposite.
Learning to recognize and respect all aspects of your humanity—limits included—can enhance your resilience to stress and make you a more successful, loving individual.