Does the word self-compassion make you cringe?
It’s one of those words that makes some people squirm. One such person is British writer Oliver Burkeman. A thoughtful writer, Burkeman has written self-help books which are very much not of the touchy-feely variety, as evidenced by titles like HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done and The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.
Burkeman has written how some things make him cringe, even though they’re very useful – for example, gratitude diaries and talk therapy. The idea at which he has cringed the most, he adds, is probably self-compassion – ‘the notion that most of us could do with being quite a bit kinder to ourselves.’
It’s partly a problem of language, says Burkeman. Self-compassion sounded sanctimonious to him, a bit indulgent. Somewhere along the way, however, he came across the idea of being ‘friendly’ to oneself, and realised he was bad at it. Many of us beat up on ourselves and treat ourselves in ways we would never treat our friends, notes Burkeman.
The point is, self-compassion might sound icky to you, a bit touchy-feely, self-indulgent, self-pitying. However, it’s none of these things. Treating yourself as you would treat a friend – this is a reasonable way to approach life, isn’t it?
Psychologist and Self-Compassion author Dr Kristin Neff has created a scale which allows you to measure whether you are high or low on self-compassion. The scale asks respondents to rate their level of agreement to various statements, such as ‘I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies’, ‘When I fail at something important to me I become consumed by feelings of inadequacy, ‘I try to see my failings as part of the human condition’, and ‘I try to be understanding and patient towards those aspects of my personality I don’t like.’
As these statements make clear, people low in self-compassion are prone to harsh self-criticism and are unforgiving of their own mistakes. In contrast, people high in self-compassion recognise we are all imperfect people living imperfect lives and that it’s important to be understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate. Or, as Oliver Burkeman might put it, they tend to be friendly toward themselves.
As already noted, then, there’s nothing cringe-worthy about practising self-compassion – it’s a very sensible and reasonable thing to do, one that is vital for good mental health.
In fact, far from being self-indulgent, know that many people find practising self-compassion to be very hard work.
For example, it’s common for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to suffer intense guilt over fears they are “bad” or immoral. The OCD sufferer resorts to various compulsions in an effort to manage their anxiety and guilt – for example, compulsive reassurance-seeking, praying, or confessing.
One often missed but common compulsion is self-punishment, as noted by OCD expert and author Jon Hershfield. The person with OCD may be ‘extra unkind’ to themselves to make sure they aren’t ‘getting away with anything’, says Hershfield. If they can at least prove they feel bad about their apparent failings by hating on themselves, then it eases their worry about being immoral.
The treatment of OCD involves exposing oneself to feared situations without resorting to compulsions. Thus, self-compassion is actually an exposure for many people with OCD. Hershfield adds: ‘It’s pretty hard exposure work, if done honestly, and takes great courage to pull off’.
I see many people with OCD, and can confirm Hershfield is right on this point. However, people with OCD are not the only ones to find self-compassion to be difficult. Perfectionists find it to be distinctly uncomfortable. So can depressed people and people struggling with low self-esteem, amongst others.
Self-criticism is painful, but it may be a familiar pain. Unfortunately, we often gravitate to what’s familiar, even when it’s really bad for us. Thus, coveting self-compassion may initially be difficult and uncomfortable.
Just remember it’s worth making the effort. Being friendly to yourself is, as Oliver Burkeman notes, a really good idea.
Or, as Jon Hershfield puts it: 'Stop being such a wimp and be more self-compassionate.'
(First published in Southern Star on 20/7/2023).