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Self-Compassion: A Way to Make Peace with Your Imperfections

Artist mid adult woman looking herself on mirror. Dusts and dirts on the mirror...

In order to maintain a positive self-image, we usually try to hide our shortcomings – often through a show of self-confidence we may not always feel. The problem with faking confidence – the old “fake it till you make it” concept – is that we may start to overestimate our own abilities, and that can lead to disaster in the workplace.

But self-compassion encourages us to acknowledge our flaws and limitations. It allows us to see ourselves from a more objective and realistic point of view. And while both self-confidence and self-compassion have advantages, self-compassion includes the benefits of confidence without the downside of delusion.

The three elements of self-compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, divides self-compassion into three parts:

  1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment. Neff says, “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.”
  2. Common humanity vs. Isolation. Our frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if each of us were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  But all humans suffer. As Neff states, “The very definition of being ‘human’ means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, 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 [each of us] alone”.
  3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. “Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.  At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be ‘over-identified’ with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”

How can we learn to increase our self-compassion?

By practicing forgiveness. We can begin by no longer punishing ourselves for our mistakes. We’re not perfect yet we are valued by our friends and colleagues for who we are, not because we’re faultless. We don’t need to be a certain way to be worthy of love.

By employing a “growth mindset”. Our mindset has a huge impact on our wellbeing. In afixed mindset”, people aim to achieve validation. They constantly try to prove themselves and are highly sensitive to being wrong or making a mistake. As a result, people with fixed mindsets always feel anxious and are vulnerable to setbacks or criticism. But people who have a “growth mindset” believe that personal qualities can be learned, developed or cultivated. They view failure only as feedback about their performance, not as a judgement of their personality, potential or value.

By expressing gratitude and generosity. There is more strength to be found in appreciating what we do have rather than wishing for what we don’t have. By focusing on the positive things in our lives, we move the focus away from ourselves and our shortcomings and out to the world and all its beauty. And by being generous with our time and resources, we realize how rich we really are and see the difference we can make to others. Doing good for others makes us happy – but only when it doesn’t impact our own wellbeing.

Christopher Germer, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, sums it up this way: “Many people dismiss self-compassion because they think it flies in the face of their ambition or hard-driving attitude, which are qualities that they think have made them successful. But being self-compassionate doesn’t imply that you shouldn’t be ambitious or push yourself to succeed. It’s about how you motivate yourself; instead of doing it with blame and self-criticism, self-compassion motivates like a good coach, with encouragement, kindness, and support. It’s a simple reversal of the Golden Rule: Learning to treat ourselves as we naturally treat others in need – with kindness, warmth, and respect.”

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