Amelia, a struggling young actress, plopped down on my sofa. She’d never been to see a therapist before, but she had to find out why she was so depressed.
“I’m a great daughter and a great friend,” she told me. “When the people I love are down or in trouble, I know how to make them feel better. The problem is I’m not nearly that nice to myself. When I have some sort of reversal, I’m self-critical and self-blaming. I have to learn to take better care of myself, or I’m not going to make it.”
It took me a moment to respond because Amelia had so perfectly described a self-destructive habit that too many of us share.
We are lovely to friends and family. But when we talk to ourselves, we blame, we shame, we guilt until we have convinced ourselves we’re failures as human beings.
My present to you this holiday season is the antidote to all that self-flagellation — the gift of self-compassion. It’s the salve I have recommended many times, yet clients struggle to believe that they deserve it.
Take it from me and Dr. Kristin Neff — we do.
Neff, an educational psychologist and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kindness, care and compassion that you would show others.
During an interview with The Atlantic in May, Neff said:
“One component of self-compassion is self-kindness, which is obvious in a way. But it also entails a recognition of common humanity—in other words, the understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives. Sometimes, when we fail, we react as if something has gone wrong—that this shouldn’t be happening. … But it’s not ‘poor me.’ “It’s well, ‘everyone fails.’ Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.”
Neff says self-compassion also involves mindfulness.
“We have to be willing to turn toward and acknowledge our suffering. Typically, we don’t want to do that. We want to avoid it, we don’t want to think about it, and want to go straight into problem-solving.”
During my research, I found a more light-hearted take on self-compassion from The School of Life, which is an institute based in London and focused on emotional intelligence. Their five-minute video on YouTube is a gift in itself, with sketches and a script that will make you laugh. But the underlying message couldn’t be more serious. The video begins by acknowledging that we’re all so adept at self-criticism that the end result can be depression and underperformance.
“We might simply lose the will to get out of bed,” says the ironic British moderator.
Call the perfect cure what you will — self-compassion, self-care, a 30-minute bubble bath, or, as the moderator says in his wonderful British accent, “a corrective.”
“We’re suspicious because this sounds horribly close to self-pity,” the moderator says. “But because depression and self-hatred are serious enemies of a good life, we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life.”
How to ban those self-destructive voices in your head? I heartily embrace this School of Life, 15-minute exercise, best performed in bed or bath.
- Think about scale when you consider the task at which you just failed. It was actually very hard, almost impossible.
- We all have tricky family histories. Maybe you weren’t equipped to handle the disaster that just befell you. It’s not all your fault.
- Too often we compare ourselves to people who are rich, famous and brilliant, too. Far more common are routine, run-of-the-mill failures. That’s what we call normal.
- We tend to believe that we are in control; we control our own luck. But too often, that’s not the case. We’re not in control or to blame.
- Your achievements are just a part of who you are. While you’re relaxing these few minutes, try to remember the people, the voices of your childhood. They loved you for who you were, not what you accomplished.
- This most recent crisis, the one that has you in bed talking to yourself, seems like it’s going to last forever. Not true. While you’re feeling blue, however, indulge yourself. Rest. That’s what you need most of all.
To all of you out there reading my blog, I wish you happy holidays. And don’t forget the bubble baths.