Translator: Rui Jiang Reviewer: Queenie Lee
I guess you could say that I am a self-compassion evangelist.
I love spreading the good word about self-compassion.
I've devoted the last ten years of my research career
to studying the mental health benefits of self-compassion,
and more recently I've been working on developing interventions to help people
learn to be more compassionate to themselves in their lives.
And the reason I'm so passionate about self-compassion
is because I have really seen its power in my own life.
I first learned about self-compassion in 1997,
when I was finishing up my PhD at UC Berkeley.
I was going through a really hard time.
I had just gotten out of a very messy divorce
with feeling of a lot of shame and self-judgment.
I was feeling a lot of stress.
Would I finish my PhD?
And if I did, would I get a job?
So, I thought it would be a good time to learn how to practice meditation.
So I signed up with a local Buddhist meditation group.
And the very first evening, the very first course,
the woman leading the group talked about the importance of compassion,
not only for others, but also for ourselves,
the importance of including ourselves in the circle of compassion,
of treating ourselves with the same kindness, care, and concern
that we treat a good friend.
And it was like a light bulb went off over my head at that moment.
I realized - well, first I thought, what?
You're allowed to be nice yourself, and this is being encouraged?
But I realized,
it was exactly what I needed in that difficult moment in my life.
So really, from that day forward,
I can say I intentionally tried to be more compassionate to myself,
and it made a huge difference almost immediately.
And then, luckily, I did get a job; I did two years of postdoctoral study
with one of the country's leading self-esteem researchers.
And while working with her, I started to realize that self-compassion
offered a lot of benefits that self-esteem didn't.
Let me start by defining what I mean by self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a global evaluation of self-worth, a judgment:
"Am I a good person, or I'm a bad person?"
And for many years, psychologists really saw self-esteem
as the ultimate marker of psychological health,
and there's a reason for that.
There's lots of research that shows if you have low self-esteem,
if you hate yourself, you're going to be depressed,
you're going to be anxious,
you're going to have all sorts of psychological problems;
if it gets really bad, you might even consider suicide.
However, high self-esteem also can be problematic.
The problem is not if you have it;
it's how you get it.
In American culture,
to have high self-esteem,
we have to feel special and above-average.
If I told anyone of you, your work performance,
"Oh, it's average," or "you are an average mother,"
or if you told me afterward that this talk was average,
I'd be crashed, right?
It's not okay to be average.
It's considered an insult to be average.
So what's the problem with that?
If all of us have to be above average at the same time, right?
Are the words "logical impossibility" springing to mind here, right?
So what happens if we all have to feel above-average?
As we started playing these little games,
we start suddenly finding ways to puff ourselves up and put others down
so we can feel better about ourselves in comparison.
And some people actually take this to an extreme.
You may or may not know,
but there is an epidemic of narcissism in this culture.
We've been tracking the narcissism levels of college undergraduates
for the past 25 years,
and they are at the highest levels ever recorded,
and actually a lot of psychologists
believe this is because of the self-esteem movement in the schools.
And there are a lot of nasty social dynamics
that can stem from needing to feel better than others
to feel good about ourselves.
We also have an epidemic of bullying in our culture in our schools.
Why do kids bully?
Why do kids who are forming their sense of self
feel they've got to bully others?
It's partly to build their own sense of self-esteem,
to feel that they are stronger, more powerful
than these other kids that they're picking on.
Or why are people prejudiced?
Why do we feel that our religious group, or ethnic group, or political party
is better than the other group?
Partly, in order to enhance our own self-esteem.
Another problem with self-esteem is that it's contingent on success.
We only feel good about ourselves when we succeed in those domains of life
that are important to us.
But what happens when we fail?
What happens when we don't meet our ideal standards?
We feel lousy,
we feel terrible about ourselves.
And for women this is especially hard
because what do you think research shows, around the world,
the number-one domain in which women invest their self-esteem?
Our perception of how attractive we are.
And the standards for women are so high.
How can we feel above average in looks? We're looking at all these supermodels.
Even the supermodels feel insecure compared to other supermodels, right?
It's very interesting if you look at this developmentally.
Around third grade, boys and girls both think they're pretty attractive,
and they have fairly high levels of self-esteem.
Then for boys, about the end of sixth grade:
yeah, looking pretty good, feeling pretty good.
End of high school: looking good, feeling good about myself.
But for girls, after third grade ...
their perception of how attractive they are,
and therefore their self-esteem, starts to take a nosedive.
It starts very young.
So how do we get off this treadmill,
this constant need to feel better than others
so that we can feel good about ourselves?
That's where self-compassion comes in.
Self-compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively,
self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly,
embracing ourselves as we are: flaws and all.
I actually define self-compassion in my research
as having three core components.
The first, you might say, is the most obvious,
and that is treating ourselves with kindness versus harsh self-judgment.
Treating ourselves like we treat a good friend,
with encouragement, understanding, empathy, patience, gentleness.
But if you stop to check in with how we treat ourselves,
especially on a bad day when things aren't going so well,
we're often harsher and more cruel to ourselves in the language we use.
We say things to ourselves
we would never say to someone we cared about.
We say things to ourselves
we probably even wouldn’t say to someone we didn't like very much.
We are often our own worst enemy.
With self-compassion, we reverse that pattern
and start treating ourselves like we treat our good friends.
The second component of self-compassion
is common humanity.
Where self-esteem asks, "How am I different than others?"
Self-compassion says, "Well, how am I same as others?"
And one of the ways we are the same as others -
What does it mean to be human?
To be human means to be imperfect.
All of us, everyone on the entire globe,
we are imperfect as people, and our lives are imperfect.
That is the shared human experience.
Often what happens, though, irrationally,
when we notice something about ourselves -
we haven't reached our goal, or we're struggling in life -
we feel as if, "Something has gone wrong here."
"This is abnormal." "This shouldn't be this way."
"I shouldn't be failing to reach my goals."
And it's that feeling of abnormality, of separation from others,
that is so psychologically damaging.
We make it so much worse
by feeling we're isolated in our suffering and our imperfection,
when in fact, that's precisely what connects us to other people.
The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness.
Mindfulness means being with what is in the present moment.
And we need to be able to turn toward, acknowledge, validate,
and accept the fact that we are suffering
in order to give ourselves compassion.
Actually, oftentimes we aren't aware of our own suffering,
especially when that suffering comes from our own harsh self-criticism.
We get so lost in the role of self-critic,
so identified with the part of ourselves that puts the back up straight, saying,
"You are wrong, you should have done better."
But we don't even notice
the incredible pain we're causing ourselves.
And if we don't notice
what we're doing to ourselves with our harsh self-criticism,
we can't give yourselves the compassion we need.
You might be asking, "Why do we do it?"
Self-criticism, we know it's painful. Why do we do it?
We've actually found in research -
there are lots of reasons we're self-critical -
but the number one reason ...
is that we believe we need our self-criticism to motivate ourselves;
that if we are too kind to ourselves,
we'll be self-indulgent and lazy.
So the question is: Is it true?
Actually, the research shows just the opposite:
Self-criticism undermines our motivation,
and here's why.
When we criticize ourselves,
we are tapping into our bodies' threat-defense system:
the reptilian brain.
This system evolved
so that if there was a threat to our physical person,
we would release adrenaline and cortisol,
and prepare for the fight-or-flight response.
The system evolved for threats to our actual bodily self,
but in modern times, typically, the threat is not to our actual selves
but to our self-concept.
When we think a thought about ourselves
that we don't like, that's some imperfection,
we feel threatened,
and so we attack the problem, meaning we attack ourselves.
And with self-criticism, it's a double whammy
because we are both the attacker and the attacked.
So self-criticism releases a lot of cortisol.
If you are constant self-critic, you have constantly high levels of stress,
and eventually the body, to protect itself, will shut itself down
and become "I'm depressed" in order to deal with all the stress.
And as we know, depression is not exactly the best motivational mindstate.
Luckily, we aren't just reptiles,
we're also mammals.
There's another way we can feel safe,
and that is by tapping into the mammalian caregiving system.
What's unique about mammals is they are born very immature,
which means a system had to be evolved
in which the infant would want to stay close next to the mother
and stay safe,
which means our bodies are programmed to respond to warmth,
gentle touch, and soft vocalizations.
So when we give ourselves compassion,
the research shows we actually reduce our cortisol levels,
and release oxytocin and opiates,
which are the feel-good hormones.
And when we feel safe and comforted,
we are in the optimal mindstate to do our best.
And it's actually very easy to see
when we think about how to best motivate our children.
Let's say there is a father
whose son comes home from high school with a failing math grade.
The father has two different ways to try to motivate his child.
The first is with harsh criticism.
The son comes in, shows to father the math grade,
and the father says,
"I'm ashamed of you. What a loser. You'll never amount to anything."
Does that make you cringe?
Isn't that often precisely the type of language we use with ourselves?
What's going to happen to that son?
Will he try harder? Yes, he will for the short term.
But eventually, he's going to lose faith in himself.
He's going to become depressed, and he will become afraid of failure
and probably give up math
because the consequences of failing again are just too dire.
But what if the father takes a compassionate approach?
The son shows him the failing math grade, and the father says,
"Uhh, ouch, wow. You must be hurting. I'm sorry.
Hey, give me a hug. I still love you. It happens to everyone.
But I know you want to get your math grades up
because you want to go to college."
Here's what compassion says: "What can I do to help?"
"How can I support you?"
And the more encouraging, loving, compassionate the father is,
the better place, emotionally, the son will be in to do his best.
And luckily, research strongly supports everything I've been saying.
The last few years, especially, have seen a sharp uptick
in the number of research studies conducted on self-compassion.
And the bottom line is unequivocally:
Self-compassion is very strongly related to mental well-being.
It's strongly related to less depression,
less anxiety, less stress, less perfectionism.
It's equally strongly related to positive states, like happiness,
like life satisfaction.
It's linked to greater motivation, taking greater self-responsibility,
making healthier lifestyle choices.
It's also linked to having more sense of connectedness with others,
better interpersonal relationships.
We've also done some research
comparing directly self-esteem and self-compassion.
And what we find, what you can say
is that self-compassion offers the benefits of self-esteem
without the pitfalls.
So it's associated with strong mental health,
but it's not associated with narcissism, or constant social comparison,
or ego-defensive aggression.
It also provides a much more stable sense of self-worth than self-esteem does
because it's there for you precisely when you fail.
Just when self-esteem deserts you,
self-compassion steps in and gives you a sense of being valuable,
not because you've reached some standard, or you've judged yourself positively,
but because you are a human being, worthy of love in that moment.
And again this is something I really know from my personal life.
The greatest challenge I have faced in my life, so far,
was when my son Rowan was diagnosed with autism.
And luckily when he was diagnosed,
I had a long practice of self-compassion under my belt.
So when I first got the diagnosis,
I felt incredible grief;
I even felt some shame.
And it was very hard to feel that, to admit that to myself.
Because how can I feel grief
about this child who I love more than anyone else in the world?
The thing is I was feeling that, and I knew
that what I needed at that moment was to embrace how difficult it was.
And the more I could embrace my own grief, the more quickly I moved through it,
and then the more able I was to turn toward him
and accept and love him for who he was.
It also helped me over and over again in the heat of the moment.
As you may know, one issue with autistic children,
especially when they're young, is they can throw very terrible tantrums.
So, imagine being on a plane to England -
this is a true story, Rowan was four years old -
I don't know what set him off,
but he throws a doozy of tantrum.
Flailing and screaming.
Everyone on that plane looking at us like they wish we were dead.
He's four years old; he looks normal.
People are thinking,
"What's wrong with this kid? Why is he acting this way?
What's wrong with this mother, why can't she control her child?"
Okay, lots of fear. What do I do, what do I do?
Jumping out the window sadly wasn't an option, so ...
I know, I'll take him to the bathroom. Try to comfort him there.
Maybe it'll muffle his screams.
So I'm kind of taking this four-year-old, flailing child to the bathroom,
which was, of course ...
Imagine being in that little space outside the bathroom door
with this tantruming child,
and I knew, in that moment, the only refuge I had was self-compassion.
So I put my hands over my heart, and I tried to comfort him,
but I was mainly focusing on myself.
"This is so hard right now, darling. I'm so sorry you're going through this.
But I'm here for you."
And you know what? It got me through.
And by allowing myself to be open-hearted toward myself,
I could remain open-hearted to Rowan.
People sometimes think self-compassion is self-indulgent or selfish.
Because the more we were able to keep our hearts open to ourselves,
the more we have available to give to others.
So I would like to invite you to try to be more compassionate to yourself.
Especially as women, you know how to do it.
You know how to be a good friend.
You know what to say to comfort someone when they're in need.
You just have to remember to be a good friend to yourself.
It's easier than you think, and it really could change your life.
And that's why I think self-compassion is an idea worth spreading.