Why Is Self-Compassion So Hard to Practice?

Self-compassion can be difficult. Many of us have learned to be much harder on ourselves than anyone else. We judge, blame, label, demand, punish, and compare ourselves to others.

In this week’s PopUp Kota gathering, we looked at our relationship with self-compassion. We explored Kristin Neff’s work on the topic and did some exercises based on those in her Self-Compassion Workbook.

It was fascinating to grow awareness around the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. And to consider why it’s sometimes easier to hold other people more compassionately than we do with ourselves.

Why is self-compassion so hard to practice?

What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion is not self-pity. It’s not selfish or egotistical. It’s not giving ourselves a free pass to avoid life’s complexities. And it’s not lowering our standards or giving up on our dreams.

It’s about working WITH rather than against ourselves. It creates integrity in how we treat people, ourselves included. It’s a functional relationship that requires ongoing attention and awareness.

Self-compassion is also crucial when it comes to growing and sustaining healthy relationships with others. Including how we hold and engage with strangers. Many of the reasons there is so much unresolved violence, disunity, and disintegration in our relationships and across society may arise from lacking self-compassion. We might turn our self-judgement onto others.

Why Do We Beat Ourselves Up?

We spend a lot of time with ourselves and might learn not to like who we are. To lose patience, be quick to judge, and get frustrated with the same issues that keep coming up.

“Why can’t you just get over it!?” “Pull yourself together!” “No one cares. Stop whinging!”

Self-talk takes root early on in life. We internalise messages from the world around us. It might be how we observe others treating one another. We absorb the expectations about how to be treated and how to treat others.

This teaches us what to value (show and hide about ourselves) as subconscious strategies for acceptance in families and social groups. We develop and adapt strategies for belonging. And when we experience thoughts, desires, and outcomes that don’t fit the internalised demand, we turn on ourselves.

The Story We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves

The inner critic, judge, and educator can take different forms. We might tend towards one way of beating ourselves up more than the others.

Comparing Ourselves to Others

When we feel, do, or think something we’ve taught ourselves to forbid, we might turn on ourselves by turning outwards. “Look”, we say, “my sister is better…that person never messes up…they don’t get flustered, they have it all together”.

Comparing to Our Idealised Self

When we feel, do, or think something we’ve taught ourselves to forbid, we might turn on ourselves with perfectionistic demands. “You’ve let yourself down here”, we say to ourselves as we hold our actions up to the standards by which we’ve learned to measure our self-worth. “I SHOULD be balanced, perfect, selfless, strong and independent, competent”.

Denying Our Right To Our Feelings and Needs

We might diminish our feelings and needs by jumping to compare our fortune with the misfortune of others. “You’ve got no right to be upset”, we say to ourselves, “your life is amazing compared to others. Count your blessings. At least you’ve got a job, a roof over your head, and a relationship TO lose”.

Disconnection From Ourselves and Others

Self-Compassion is about connecting with what’s truly alive in us. Rather than denying or diminishing our feelings, needs, and desires, we choose instead to honour and validate them.

Disconnection occurs when what is alive in us isn’t allowed to breathe. We learn to do this to ourselves if we’ve been taught to do it by others.

Re-connecting through self-compassion can take a long time as we re-write our life scripts and re-parent those parts of ourselves that we taught ourselves to shrink and hide.

The Stress-Response Turned Inward

Kristin Neff talks about the “unholy trinity” of self-criticism, isolation, and rumination as the stress response turned inward. This basic survival instinct kicks in when our self-concept is threatened, and we fear rejection due to falling short of our perception of acceptable things to do, think, feel, or say.

The source of this treat isn’t external. It is us. So we criticise ourselves, isolate ourselves, or enter into obsessive overthinking.

The Three Components of Self-Compassion

Neff positions these three responses in opposition to the three legs on the stool of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Self-Kindness

We might default to beating ourselves up when we make a mistake or do something we feel ashamed of. It often seems easier to criticise ourselves rather than encourage or support ourselves. Self-kindness is about holding ourselves in the same way we would hold someone else that we see struggling. The first port of call is empathy, comfort, and unconditional acceptance.

Common Humanity

This gives us a sense of connection to the messy, chaotic, flawed and imperfect story of every human who has ever lived. This aspect of self-compassion takes us deep into the knowledge that everyone fails, messes up, struggles, and has a weird cocktail of feelings and needs.

Mindfulness

When we live in the present moment, we allow our thoughts, emotions, and sensations to be what they are. We bring awareness to what is alive in us and notice what we are witnessing at any given moment. Rather than what we “should” think or feel, we can connect with what is ACTUALLY happening within us. This allows us to be self-empathic and practically respond to the need beneath the thought, feeling, or sensation.

Defining Self-Compassion

Self-compassion has been defined by many people in a whole range of ways. At the end of our Kota meeting, someone gave their definition of self-compassion, and it occurred to us that it necessarily means different things to each of us. So we wondered what we might include in our personal definition.

What would your definition of self-compassion be? Where do you lack self-compassion at the moment?

Perhaps it involves understanding and patience towards aspects of your personality you don’t like. Or when things don’t go to plan, allowing space for disappointment and sadness before jumping to self-judgement and blame.

Maybe it’s about taking time to hold your inadequacies, failings and flaws as part of the universal story of the human condition. Or it might involve rewriting what you perceive as inadequate, failings, and shortcomings altogether.

Self-compassion might be connecting with others when you feel isolated, alone, or like everyone else is happier than you. It might be about creating habits that give you something positive to focus on rather than obsessing and ruminating. And it might involve embracing and developing a sense of humour about the things you’ve been taught to believe are flaws and inadequacies.

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