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What Self-Compassion Really Looks Like

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"I don’t like myself.”

Those were the words I said to my sister-in-law as I alternated between crying and talking to her on the phone. It was mid-afternoon on a sunny, cold day in early January 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. I’d moved back there after having spent six months living with my best friend in Phoenix, Arizona. I’d made the decision a month earlier to, once and for all, get to the bottom of my depression and anxiety—without medication.

It was a tough decision, and one that I'm clear isn't the safest course of action for everyone, but I knew it was best for me. After spending my entire adult life struggling emotionally and mentally with PTSD, depression and anxiety, along with almost 15 years of on-again/off-again use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds: I’d had enough. Deep down, I knew there was a better way. So I began allowing the voice inside of me that insisted that there was a better way to lead me to my own personal healing.

What I didn’t know at that moment was the statement I made to my sister-in-law was the REAL beginning of my healing. It was the door swinging wide open to the path that would be long and unpredictable, with sharp curves or huge mountains that sometimes seemed to come out of nowhere, and straight-aways and down-hill stretches that showed up as only God’s grace can.

Those words were the truth. And that truth was laid bare everyday by the way I talked to myself about the state of my life, how I treated my body, and the romantic relationships I chose to involve myself in. There was evidence strewn all around me that I didn’t actually like myself, yet I’d NEVER actually uttered the words before that day.... 

What I now know was the key to healing

As I sit here today, after six years of reading all of the personal development, self-help, and spiritual growth books I could get my hands on, after hundreds of hours of yoga and meditation and TED Talks and podcasts and talk therapy sessions, I know what actually gave my mind and soul the rest and contentment they’d been craving for over 20 years.

It was self-compassion. Yup, that’s it and that’s all! I simply DECIDED to give myself a break—every time and for every thing!

Now, I don’t want you to think that it was easy, because it definitely was not. Like with most deep change-inducing shifts, self-compassion is simple, but far from easy (at least at first.) And for most of us, the idea of giving yourself a break no matter what sounds like a recipe for laziness, self-indulgence, and a life filled with unmet goals and mediocrity. But I’m here to tell you: it’s the exact opposite!

I learned from my own personal experience, but research has also proven that treating yourself with the kindness and forgiveness that you’d give to your child, best friend, or anyone else that you love, exponentially increases your well-being, productivity, and relationships with those around you.  

In a September 2018 Harvard Business Review article, the author writes that, “When we experience a setback at work, we tend to either become defensive and blame others, or berate ourselves. Neither response is helpful. Shirking responsibility by getting defensive may alleviate the sting of failure, but it comes at the expense of learning. Self-flagellation, on the other hand, may feel warranted in the moment, but it can lead to an inaccurately gloomy assessment of one’s potential, which undermines personal development.”

The same happens in our personal lives. What sits in the middle of those two extremes is practicing self-compassion. But hear me clearly: self-compassion is NOT all roses and positive affirmations like many people believe.

Here are the two not-so-sunshiny actions and mindset shifts that I found were the real underpinnings of the full, sustained self-compassion that leads to healing. 

#1: Calling yourself on your own bullshit

Self-compassion requires us to fully love and accept ourselves. If you’re like me, guilt and shame can be HUGE barriers to accepting yourself, which is why it’s important to get rid of those heavy emotions ASAP. But there’s a prerequisite to releasing them: calling yourself out on your bullshit!

Think of it like this: when someone hurts us, one of the first things we want from an apology is for that person to tell the truth and acknowledge the offense. Well, it’s no different when we want to forgive ourselves! And that’s why I believe that the first step to reaching a place of real self-compassion is calling yourself out, or as @IyanlaVanzant says it: call a thing a thing!

That means acknowledging aaaaaaaalllllll of the ways you’ve screwed up or showed up as less of who you know yourself to be. It means putting actual words to and describing all of the real AND imagined offenses you’ve committed toward yourself. I bring up “imagined” offenses because sometimes, when we reflect and give language to what we’re offended by, it doesn’t even make sense. We’ve literally created an offense where none even existed.

I had to admit to myself that shutting down emotionally, drinking three martinis and eating an entire medium thin-crust pepperoni pizza to avoid work projects that would advance me (but were also completely panic-inducing) was poor, unacceptable behavior that was holding me back. And I had to forgive myself. Notice here that the BEHAVIOR was unacceptable. Not my entire being!

I had to put words and meaning to the destructive relationship cycles I had with men: I was breaking my own heart. The guilt and shame I experienced because I literally watched myself continuously accept lies and mistreatment created fractures that I knew were self-inflicted. And because I couldn’t seem to just “pull myself out” of the cycle, I’d subconsciously decided that I deserved it.

I had to admit to myself that much of my self-esteem was tied to my bank account and balance sheet and credit score.  And that’s why when financial troubles hit in 2009 during the recession, I chose to bury my head in the sand, avoid my finances, and fall into a chasm of depression. Yes—for me, even my depression was a choice, because its root was self-esteem that overemphasized my finances, as well as my tendency to stuff or avoid unpleasant emotions.

Other bullshit that you may need to call yourself out on:

  • The need to always be right in relationships
  • Starting a million projects and never finishing any
  • Committing to do something to improve yourself and not doing it
  • Not managing your money responsibly and blaming it on lack of income

Calling it out, naming it, accepting responsibility, dragging it from the realm of ruminating negative self-talk and out into the light of unbiased observation makes it a simple problem, and not an unfixable character defect.

Radical self-honesty and accountability doesn’t feel good. And it’s not supposed to because none of us are perfect. But what it does is lead the way to complete forgiveness, which is a pillar of compassion.

#2: Understanding that self-compassion doesn’t always involve ease or “feeling good”

Treating yourself with kindness and compassion doesn’t mean you’ll always feel good. As I recounted in point #1, acknowledging that I’d used romantic relationships to reinforce negative feelings I had toward myself did NOT feel good. But fessing up to it was kind and compassionate. Accepting that my actions and avoidance ruined my finances—NOT the recession—uncovered deep guilt and shame. But telling the truth was kind and compassionate.

That’s because self-compassion doesn’t make excuses so that you feel good. Instead, it’s about owning bad behavior and negative outcomes while still loving yourself. It’s about looking at your shadows and saying “you, too are part of my humanity.” So when you finish calling yourself out, you probably won’t “go easy” on yourself. In fact, the next steps may be some of the most difficult things you’ve done in your life! For me, that was definitely the case!

And as Brene Brown so succinctly puts it: clarity is kindness. So self-compassion can also look like having hard, uncomfortable conversations with others to clarify what you think, how you feel, and what you need. It can mean confronting someone else’s bad behavior when its impact bleeds into your life. Easy? No? Self-compassionate? Absolutely! 

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” --Buddha

You wouldn’t stop being friends with someone if she put on extra pounds or didn’t get the promotion. You wouldn’t stop loving your child because she wasn’t accepted into her dream college. Yet we do it to ourselves all the time. At the end of the day, healing comes when we let go of the contingencies we place on self-acceptance and replace them with compassion.

Unlike its second cousin Self-Esteem, self-compassion doesn’t depend on how “good” you are at something, or on outward comparisons to measure if you’re above-average or special. It simply says “you’re human, and I love you regardless.” Self-compassion drinks from the well of unconditional love, which doesn’t require us to be better than, or even equal to anyone else. It asserts that we are worthy of self-kindness and self-forgiveness. Period.

So the next time you catch yourself reading the personal mean-girl script you wrote in your head, or slipping into a depressive or anxious episode, begin with self-compassion. Instead of immediately judging and blaming and shaming, talk to yourself and treat yourself like a loved one. What would you say? What questions would you ask? How would you support that person? Give yourself the love you so freely give to the ones you care for most.

If you’re ready to get started and are into the research like me, I highly recommend starting with Dr. Kristin Neff at selfcompassion.org or checking out her TED Talk.

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