Why self compassion is healthier and allows more self growth.
Update: I’ve made this post into a podcast episode here.
One of the unhealthiest habits I picked up while working in tech was a total lack of self compassion in the name of “getting ____ done.” Crushing my to do list was rewarded by being able to add yet more things to my never ending list. I felt really proud with all the personal targets I would hit each day. Work targets. Business targets. Health and fitness targets. Every goal came with something measurable so I could know I was doing “enough”: Meditate for ten minutes a day. Journal 750 words. Send 7 sales emails a week. Write 1 blog post a week. Run 5k 3 times a week.
I had quantified my life and my self esteem was on fleek.
Self esteem always requires external streams to feed it. It can be a single stream, like work or a romantic relationship (shakey, and perilous) . or it can be fed from many streams, like hobbies, friendship circles, giving back to the community, as well as work and love.
But even with diverse streams, what makes it risky is it derived externally. Based on something you output.
When I was seriously ill with chronic fatigue, I just couldn’t output. I tried. I measured my self worth in books I read per year, how consistent I was in my graded exercise, and in the care I put into my houseplants, since I was almost home bound. But the internal voice I used to make myself do these things was astoundingly cruel.
Because I spoke to myself the way all my side hustling hero’s appeared to: never giving myself slack. Always pushing myself to the next level. Always comparing myself to someone else. Calling myself a pussy when I felt tired. Calling myself a crazy bitch when I was emotional or needy.
When I became a mom during the pandemic, I also couldn’t output. The first month was ok. She was small and slept a lot. But by the time she was wiggly, between watching her and feeding her, my spare time and free hands were a thing of the past.
Between the baby, the isolation, being a full time mom, and recovery from an unplanned c section, my sources of self esteem were all dried up.
There are times when expecting yourself to be able to output in order to feel good is unreasonable. And yet we still deserve to feel good, especially in times like this.
Self esteem is derived from self-evaluation. But evaluation involves comparing yourself to others. That’s how you know if you’re over or under delivering.
But motherhood is unique to everyone. I wasn’t going to dump on anyone (even in my head) to feel better. In fact, the unconditional, nonjudgmental support from moms on instagram is beautiful.
Which begged the question: what if we spoke to ourselves they way we spoke to stressed out moms on the internet?
Self compassion is simply that. Talking to yourself in a friendly, kind way.
Things I wish I knew sooner about self compassion:
1. Self compassion makes you a better ally
Self critical people will get defensive when they have ways they may have been harmful pointed out. Self compassion holds that being imperfect and messing up is inevitable. And to be gentle with yourself (and indeed others) when an intention to do better is clear.
Self compassion makes you grow from your shortcomings, instead of withering from them.
2. Self compassion isn’t having no self control or lowering standards
What I didn’t understand about self-compassion is that it doesn’t mean you’ll backslide into old habits or go down a slippery slip of behaviour without that self flagellating voice keeping you in check.
Self-compassion important for accountability. When we use shame and self criticism to hold ourselves to our routine or standards, we create a system where our self perception can be holier than thou when we hit all our marks or less than dirt is we mess up. That’s a unnecessary roller coaster. And kind of not so fun to be around, either way.
With self compassion, we still want better things for ourselves and keep pushing for our dreams, but we acknowledge that we messed up this time and refocus on our goals and values.
The Shadow side of Self Esteem
During my days of “grinding” and GSD, there was a disconnect in my self image between how I was told other people saw me and how I saw myself. Inside my head was a cruel, hard voice. A voice I would never use on anyone else. And because I lived with that voice, when people would call me kind and empathetic.. I felt like a fraud.
My critical thoughts were a form of self violence. I was sure that one day someone would discover the “real” me. The cruel me would leak out. This self image meant two things:
- I didn’t actually believe I deserved the things I had because I wasn’t “really” a good person. Just faking being one.
- I had better work all the harder to “atone” for my awfulness. Everyone deserved my time and kindness BUT me.
Softening my Hard Inner Voice
Learning to change the way I talk to myself after a lifetime of self critical talk is hard. I’ve tried hypnosis mp3s, so many meditations, and even an online course.
What has worked for me was creating a discord bot I control to learn to talk to myself kindly. It felt weird at first, but its the best thing I’ve done for my mental health this year, hands down.
I can’t say if this will work for you. Not everyone likes discord running on their phone and certainly not everyone will want to roleplay a supportive compassionate, friend to themselves without feeling seriously weird. Since I already role play on discord, this isn’t the huge leap for me it might be for another person.
Self compassion in its best expression is being able to fully FEEL (not just know) that there is no competition with anyone else or rush to become anything other than what I already am.
But also, having freedom and permission to be whatever I want next.
Even so. The voice of self comparison and self assessment peaks through. When I’m writing more frequently, for example. When I post regularly to the gram. When I’ve made an exceptional dinner.
This is normal. This isn’t a bad habit I need to destroy. It just is.
But it’s also not like I float through my days in a cloud of self acceptance. I have days where my rejection sensitivity dysphoria is extra. Where I overthink everything. Where I get over emotional because I’ve read too much into something. I’m also not immune to doubting my interpretation of events or agonising over if I’ve explained enough or if I’ve over explained already. On days like this, being kind to myself is harder.
But not trying to push my “negative” thoughts and feelings away is so much easier and more effective than trying to stifle them.
What’s your self talk like? Do you talk to yourself like you would your best friend?
If you’re interested in learning how to soften your own inner voice (and discord isn’t your thang) I’m including links to resources from the top two leaders in self compassion: Dr Kristen Neff, phd, who is considered the academic authority on self compassion and it’s benefits on our physical and mental health, and Tara Brach, known to everyone who’s into mindfulness and meditation as a veteran on teaching about compassion and self compassion.