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Why Is It So Hard to Practice Self-Compassion?

If you've ever found yourself stuck in a cycle of self-criticism, here's a way out.

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It turns out, I don’t like myself very much—and I’m not just saying that. I recently confirmed what I long believed to be true by taking The Self-Compassion Test. The online quiz, created by Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a bonafide expert in self-compassion, asks you to rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 on a variety of different statements.

Statement 11: “I’m intolerant and impatient toward those aspects of my personality I don’t like.” Yep.

Statement 16: “When I see aspects of myself that I don’t like, I get down on myself.” Yes again.

Statement 24:  “When something painful happens I tend to blow the incident out of proportion.” Yes—times 10,000.

Overall, I scored a 2.47. The test results note that a score between 1 to 2.5 indicates low self-compassion. (Well, I was almost moderate.) This isn’t a surprise to me. I often stand in the mirror nitpicking parts of myself. I criticize myself for falling over in Eagle Pose during yoga class. I feel guilty for not being more productive at work. I send apology texts to friends for things I shouldn’t be apologizing for. And this cycle repeats itself, day after day. The thing is—many people are stuck in a similar cycle. Where’s the way out?

Self-esteem isn’t the answer to self-criticism

Being nicer to yourself doesn’t necessarily mean boosting your self-esteem. “The problem with self-esteem…is that often the way you get that positive judgment is contingent,” Neff says. “So we judge ourselves positively when we’re special and above average. If we’re average we don’t judge ourselves positively.”

This means if you’re only feeling worthy when you’re succeeding, then you’re not actually practicing self-compassion. It’s easy to say kind words to yourself after a big promotion at work or a great conversation with a friend. It’s harder to do that when you messed up an assignment or got in an argument.

Self-compassion alters this idea. Self-worth and self-compassion are unconditional practices, Neff says. Self-compassion means being kind to yourself through the good, bad—and the ugly. To separate it from the idea of self-esteem, Neff recommends thinking about talking to yourself in the same way you would a good friend. You likely wouldn’t tell your friend that they’re a terrible person after making a minor mistake, so why is it acceptable to treat yourself differently?

The challenge of self-compassion

It may feel awkward to start practicing self-compassion, Neff says. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. “It’s not like we’re learning a whole new skill,” she says. Once we learn how to respond to ourselves in the same way we would respond to a good friend, it becomes instinctual.

The discomfort of it all stems from our fight-or-flight response, she says. When we make a mistake, we go through the same physiological response that surfaces during a state of heightened anxiety. We fight ourselves by putting ourselves down—beating ourselves up with words to maintain a false sense of discipline or control. Or we freeze, moving into a state of self-shaming and isolation.

Adia Gooden, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, says we often believe that we need to be harsh—and brutally honest—with ourselves in order to improve. “I think there aren’t enough models for what it looks like to have accountability with kindness,” she says. “I certainly think in our broader society, we tend to be very punitive.” Whether it’s cancel culture or the criminal justice system, Gooden says how we respond to mistakes tend to be extremely intense. Living in a society that honors harsh critiques doesn’t leave much room for kind accountability.

The laziness trap

Another roadblock to self-compassion is our constant concern about being labeled as narcissistic or egotistical by simply being kind to ourselves. While this may seem like an extreme jump, loving yourself is often seen as being self-centered or boastful. Conversely, hating aspects of yourself is baked into our culture. (I mean, the Mean Girls scene speaks for itself.) Self-criticism is seen as the ultimate (and only) motivator for bettering ourselves. However, Neff says while this belief may be one of the things that prevents us from embracing self-compassion, it’s far from the truth.

Practicing self-compassion is distinctly different from having an inflated ego, Gooden says. Egotistical people tend to rely on their ability to put others down in order to make themselves feel better, she says. They constantly inflict harm on those around them in an effort to bolster their own esteem. Self-compassion, on the other hand, operates independently from others. “Saying that you’re unconditionally worthy does not mean you’re saying that you’re better than anyone,” she says. “In my view, I truly believe that I’m unconditionally worthy, and I believe that everyone else is too.”

How to start practicing self-compassion

The good news is that you can break the cycle and start being kinder to yourself. If you’re looking to start disengaging with self-criticism and rejecting the self-esteem model of thinking, here are some ways to start integrating self-compassion into your life right now. (I know I’ll be taking them to heart.)

  • Start asking questions. Gooden says this type of shift in your thinking doesn’t happen overnight. It also doesn’t happen by just saying “I’m worthy”— especially if you don’t truly believe it. Instead, she suggests asking yourself some guiding questions. How could you act as though you are worthy of care? What would it look like to take good care of yourself? What would it look like to be kind to yourself?
  • Look at a new perspective. In many of her conversations with clients, Gooden speaks of the metaphor of two teachers. In the metaphor, one teacher berates you for wrong answers and tells you you’re worthless. The other teacher has high expectations of you, but wants to help you reach those goals in a supportive manner. “I ask people, ‘which teacher do you want?,'” she says. “And everyone says, ‘I want the second teacher.'” Yet, so often, we act like the first teacher to ourselves—even if it’s not ultimately effective in our own growth.
  • Imagine you’re speaking to a friend. Neff recommends looking at ourselves in the same way we would look at a friend. Instead of reverting to negative and harmful self-talk, try speaking to yourself as if you were a friend looking for advice. You may hold them accountable and tell them the truth, but you would also be supportive, and ultimately, loving.