Many clients enter therapy with the intent to fix something about themselves or their lives. They come in seeking guidance about how to get rid of anxiety, stop being so self-critical, or get off the couch and into a workout regimen.
While problem-solving and making value-based behavioral changes can be helpful and, at times, life changing, clients often discover that underneath this desire to change lie core beliefs and feelings of unworthiness and disconnection; a sense of trying to push away or rid themselves of feelings like anger, jealousy or deep sadness; or a desire to cover over mistakes.
Cultivating self-compassion can be a powerful mechanism for addressing these feelings of shame, unworthiness and isolation that so many of us struggle with. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the research of the concept and practice of self-compassion, has identified three elements of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Neff argues that rather than immediately attempting to change or fix emotions and experiences that cause pain, it is important to first acknowledge and soothe your suffering, just as you would if a friend came to you in distress. This is the first element of self-compassion, which she calls “self-kindness.” Perhaps instead of asking ourselves “how can I fix this?” we first ask, “how can I show comfort and care for myself in this moment?” From this place of genuine care, we can then make choices that contribute to our health and well-being, rather than forcing change from a place of self-criticism and contempt. The next time you make a blunder, experience a disappointment or fall short of your ideals and notice self-judgement and criticism creeping in, it may be helpful to ask: “Is this how I’d treat a friend?”
The second element involves looking at the experiences of making mistakes or not always living up to your ideals as a normal part of being human, rather than a fatal flaw. On her website, Neff states: “Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.” The next time you notice a critical voice, remind yourself that you are not alone. Just the experience of self-criticism is very human indeed, but it doesn’t have to rule your life.
That brings us to Neff’s third element, mindfulness. While pushing away and suppressing emotions will not help us in the long run, neither will becoming over-identified with your thoughts and feelings. Neff defines mindfulness as a “receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.” It’s the difference between looking at your thoughts and feelings rather than from your thoughts and feelings.
A self-compassion practice might involve meditation, journaling or cultivating self-talk that acknowledges and soothes painful feelings and experiences. A counselor at The Light Program can guide you and hold you accountable in self-compassion practices that fit your life and preferences.