It’s usually pretty easy to feel good about ourselves when things are going our way, when we’ve been making significant progress on our personal and professional intentions, and when we’re in harmony with the important people in our lives. However, when we fall short of our own expectations, disappoint others, or fail to achieve a long-cherished goal, what do we do then?
These are the times when choosing self-compassion can help us to regain our emotional balance, accept our discomfort, and take good care of ourselves. Self-compassion enables us to embrace ourselves, including our shortcomings, and do what’s healthiest for us, rather than engaging in behaviors that might offer a quick fix but would harm us in the long run.
Self-compassion, as defined by renowned self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristen Neff, consists of “extending compassion for the self for one’s failings, inadequacies and experiences of suffering”. Self-compassion consists of:
Mindfulness. The first step is to accept our current experience as it is, warts and all, rather than focusing on how we would like it to be, believe it “should” be, ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or getting lost in fantasy. Professor and Western “father” of mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”. Practicing mindfulness provides a healthy alternative to automatic and self-derogatory thinking, such as believing that we are defective or a failure. With mindfulness, we don’t fend off our feelings away or deny, nor do we become engulfed by them and believe them to be our identity.
For instance, maybe you let’s say that although you were in the running for a job you greatly desired, ultimately someone else was chosen for the position. With a mindful approach, you would accept your disappointment and allow yourself to feel the pain. You might verbalize your feelings, such as saying “this really hurts” or “I’m feeling discouraged right now”. You wouldn’t beat yourself up for feeling a certain way, nor would you try to escape your feelings by eating an entire pizza or drinking a bottle of wine. Neither would you let your feelings of disappointment to dictate your actions and cause you to push away supportive friends and family or neglect other important matters in your life. You would not become enmeshed with your emotions but would be able to stay with your experience as a compassionate and curious observer (your Wise Self).
Common humanity. Sometimes when we’re emotionally upset or in physical pain, we can feel disconnected from other people and as if our situation is unique, which can just compound our misery. A more effective alternative is to remember that millions of people have experienced something comparable (if not identical) to our situation. We are not alone – there are people we can reach out to who can understand and provide support. Everybody goes through pain at some point – this is part of the human condition.
Knowing this reminds us of our commonalities with other people. Merely acknowledging this can be helpful in and of itself. In addition, we might look into attending a pertinent support group or seek counseling for help with our present challenge.
Self-kindness. We treat ourselves with love and kindness, instead of criticizing ourselves for our perceived shortcomings. While we do not condone actions we may have taken that we now regret, we choose to be merciful and patient with ourselves. We don’t tell ourselves to “get over it” if we’re suffering emotionally, nor do we beat ourselves up for having behaved a certain way.
Instead, we ask, “How can I offer kindness to myself in this moment?” We consider what we might learn from our situation, what might have contributed to the unfortunate situation, how we might act differently in the future, or simply resolve to take good care of ourselves. We focus on providing for our soul’s well-being. In such a supportive environment, change is more possible than if we indulge in self-criticism. We realize that while we may have made a mistake, we are not a mistake, so a mistake on our part, or not getting what we wanted, does not devastate us.
Sometimes, there’s nothing we could have done to alter the course of events. In such cases, we can practice healthy self-care with good nutrition, adequate sleep, connecting with a close friend, getting a massage, attending a yoga class, or taking a stroll in tranquil surroudings.. We can avoid taking responsibility for situations that are not our fault. We can practice humble self-love and actively supporting ourselves.
To quote Thich Nhat Han, “Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves”. When we offer ourselves self-compassion, we increase our chances to live in such peace.