Everyone makes mistakes. Lots of them, big and small. Even the people you love and look up to. In healthy, loving families, parents teach kids to learn from mistakes and keep moving forward. Unfortunately, many of us were punished or ridiculed for mistakes. We came to believe that being self-critical might help us do better the next time. This often backfires. We feel ashamed of ourselves and our self-despair and negative opinion of ourselves only grows bigger.
A growing body of research about the effectiveness of practicing self-compassion brings new light to this dark landscape. But how exactly can someone learn how to be more loving towards themselves? If you are a parent and you want to give your child the gift of self-compassion, the first step is to learn how to be more kind and gentle with yourself first. Here are some ways to practice.
First, begin by noticing the times you are most self-critical. Each of us has a voice inside that says negative things to and about us. What does yours sound like? What does it get on your back about? Does it say things like: You are so stupid. How could you have done that! You are mean and selfish and no one really likes you. You will never amount to anything. You are too fat. You are too skinny. You are lazy. You are always so insensitive. Get the idea?
It helps to write down what the inner critic says about you. It is usually a very black and white perspective. Since very few people are always selfish and never kind, it paints a one-dimensional picture of you. Sometimes just taking this first step is a big eye-opener. I have had clients come back after one week of listening to their critical voice and exclaim to me, “I would never talk to my greatest enemy that way!” or “I realized that I was telling myself the same things my dad used to say to me and I hated him for it.
In order to be able to stand up to this judgmental part, ask yourself if you would allow anyone to talk to your child the way your inner critic is speaking to you. Would you keep paying a coach or music teacher if he screamed at you each week whenever you made a mistake. My guess is probably not. So why do we treat ourselves so poorly?
Sometimes the answer is simply that we don’t know better. We may have been repeatedly criticized, but this is not always the case. The “positive” purpose of our self-criticisms is usually to motivate us. We think we need to be tougher with ourselves to make us do better at something we are working on or to get us to stop something that is unhealthy. Ask yourself what is the voice wanting you to change? The next time you “yell” at yourself, say something like “I know you’re trying to point out ways that I want to improve, but your harsh judgment is not helping. Stop it.”
If it is still difficult for you to believe that you do not deserve to be treated so harshly, then another tool may work for you. First, bring to mind an issue that makes you feel inadequate or bad about yourself. Now think about a friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate. If you cannot imagine a real person in your life, you can use God or a pet or an imaginary loving friend.
Now imagine that this friend can see all your strengths and all your weaknesses. This being loves and accepts you exactly as you are, knowing that humans are imperfect works in progress. This very wise friend knows that millions of things have happened to create you as you are in this moment and that who you are right now is complicated by things you had no control over, such as your genes, your family, and your history, including your traumas and losses.
At the same time as you reflect on your mistakes, imagine this being is feeling and expressing compassion for you. Allow yourself to take in the feeling of being loved unconditionally. See how this friend looks at you, holding you with warmth and concern. Feel yourself soften as you are being seen and nurtured. This is what compassion feels like. Breathe warmth into your heart, perhaps in the form of a golden light.
When you are able to experience receiving love and attention, you are also more able to give it. Imagine someone you feel compassion for. Reflect on how you might treat that person if they were struggling with the same issue that you are. Let your feelings of love and acceptance surround that person. Imagine light going from your heart or hands to theirs. Now extend this same feeling to yourself. Breathe slowly and deeply as you say words to yourself of encouragement rather than criticism.
As you see, you can strengthen your self-compassion either by practicing the art of giving it to others or by rehearsing how to receive it. So start with whichever feels easier first and work from that experience towards the other. Giving and receiving are equally important aspects of compassion. Like muscles that need to be used to grow stronger, our capacity for self-love must be practiced. Breathing in, I feel compassion for myself. Breathing out, I feel compassion for others. Slowly, softly, gently. It takes practice. You are worth it.