Good mental health requires that you be both self-compassionate and honest with yourself. Be kind to yourself but don’t kid yourself.
As I’ve often noted, self-criticism and self-attacking can drive multiple mental health problems. That’s why self-compassion – treating yourself with the same care and concern you would show a loved one – is an essential in life, not a luxury.
As for being honest with yourself – well, the importance of this shouldn’t need to be spelled out. Sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we let ourselves or others down. Sometimes we do things we know are bad for us. Sometimes we intend to do the right thing but we get scared and opt out at the last minute.
This will happen – we’re all human, after all – but it’s important to be honest when it does, as opposed to deluding ourselves or blaming others. If you’re not truly honest with yourself, you’ll stay stuck.
Contrary to what some think, self-compassion doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook. In fact, research shows self-compassionate people are more open to critical feedback and better at owning up to mistakes.
This makes sense. If you beat yourself up when you err, you’re more likely to try and avoid that pain by not taking responsibility. In contrast, if you view mistakes as human and inevitable, you’re more likely to accept responsibility and to learn from them.
That said, we humans are gifted when it comes to codding ourselves. We often rationalise our behaviour and tell ourselves that we’re being “gentle” and “kind” with ourselves when we’re really being avoidant and fearful.
Here are a few hypothetical examples.
John is stressed because he works with a difficult colleague who takes credit for his ideas and unfairly blames him when things go wrong. Over the weekend, John considers raising the subject with his colleague on Monday or complaining to his boss.
He decides against it. “I don’t need the stress”, he says to himself. “I will rise above it. I will be kind to myself and do my mindfulness exercises”.
If John was truly honest with himself, he would admit he is nervous at the thought of complaining and is being avoidant. Instead, he pretends to himself his choice is driven by loftier motives.
“I am a sensitive, anxious person”, says Mary. “I must be gentle with myself and avoid stress and situations that make me feel anxious”.
Many people think this way; indeed, many misguided “wellness” practitioners offer such advice.
In reality, you will feel fragile if you treat yourself as fragile. A certain amount of stress and discomfort is unavoidable in life, even desirable. Avoiding anxiety reinforces anxiety. If you’re anxious, your goal should be to gradually approach feared situations and to increase your tolerance for discomfort, being self-compassionate as you do so.
Example three: Rebecca runs from negative emotions and has problems with emotional regulation. At work, she sometimes gets very angry and emotional and storms out of meetings.
Her GP recommends she try medication or dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT, a modified form of cognitive behavioural therapy widely used to treat people experiencing intense emotions).
Rebecca finds both suggestions emotionally triggering and rejects her GP’s advice. Instead, she continues to practice relaxation exercises and to attend various weekend retreats, saying: “I just need to relax and to be gentle with myself”. Nothing changes.
Example four: Chris suffers from social anxiety and avoids social events. He tells himself he will go “when I’m ready”, but he has been saying this for years. In reality, we gain confidence by doing things before we are “ready”, before we are confident.
These kinds of responses are human and understandable, but they keep you stuck. Properly managing emotional problems requires practising real honesty and self-compassion. Real honesty, because you may have to make tough choices, to do things that make you uncomfortable, and this requires being honest with yourself and owning up to difficult thoughts and emotions. Self-compassion, because you have to be kind to yourself while doing so.