Have you ever wished you could be someone else, knowing that you’re stuck in your body and mind, but you can’t find ways to love yourself more? It’s common to struggle with feeling uncomfortable in your own skin and this can lead to harsh self-criticism and social comparison. It’s okay to be discontent with factors in your life, but oftentimes we believe those factors to be entirely our own fault. If we don’t have a high-paying, fun job balanced with an incredible social life then we are failing. The standards we hold ourselves to based on social media, Facebook, TV shows, and magazines are pretty impossible. But how can we feel better about ourselves when an endless flow of subliminal messages tells us we should be having the time of our lives and leaves us feeling well, inadequate?
For starters it would be nice to have a higher self-regard: to feel that we at least like hanging out with ourselves. Think about a time recently when you messed up, made a mistake, big or small. What did you tell yourself? You might have said “I’m a failure,” “I always mess things up” or even “I’m worthless.” We generally say some pretty cruel words to ourselves when we are in the heat of the moment. But would you speak that way to someone you care about?
The key to ending the cycle of negativity
So how can we end this cycle of negativity, self-hatred, and low self-esteem? By countering these actions with self-compassion. Self-compassion is the concept of treating ourselves kindly and responding to short-comings with support instead of criticism.
Think of how you would react if a close friend was laid off due to budget cuts. Would you chastise this friend for losing their job, or comfort and encourage them? The concept of self-compassion was created and researched extensively over the past 10 years by Dr. Kristin Neff. Dr. Neff, a researcher and professor at the University of Texas, has developed three core components of self-compassion:
- Kindness: Showing warmth and accepting our faults. Stopping self-criticism from being how we deal with disappointments.
- Common humanity: Remembering all humans suffer and we will inevitably suffer as well. Accepting that no one (including yourself) is truly perfect.
- Mindfulness: Being cognizant of how realistic our negative thoughts are. Is this event truly the end of the world?
How can self-compassion help with anxiety?
We often blame ourselves for our pain and believe we deserve some kind of punishment for mistakes, usually in the form of internal criticism. However, self-criticism is physically and emotionally harmful as it releases a stream of cortisol, a stress hormone, into the body. Eventually the body will shut itself down in order to decrease the level of stress. A body that is weakened by cruel words leaves us feeling listless and depressed. If instead of criticism we provide a form of comfort for ourselves, through warmth or gentle vocalization, our body will release another hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin deactivates our cortisol-releasing threat system leaving us with less stress and anxiety.
In 2003, Dr. Neff conducted a mock interview study analyzing the effects of self-compassion for individuals with anxiety and depression. She asked the individuals everyone’s least favorite interview question: “please describe your greatest weakness.” The study concluded that individuals with higher levels of self-compassion have lower levels of anxiety after this interview and they are less likely to ruminate (engage in compulsive negative thinking). The process of ruminating can directly contribute to low self-esteem as individuals will rehash a negative event over and over in their minds. Ruminating does not actually help individuals process the negative event and move on past the pain it caused. When an individual practices self-compassion, according to Australian National University researchers Dr. Natasha Odou and Dr. Jay Brinker, they are coping with the pain and negative emotions in a healthy manner. This allows individuals to understand their own negative thoughts and not avoid processing the emotions, as they would do if ruminating. Odou and Brinker found individuals experienced a significant positive mood shift after only 10 minutes of practice, such as writing yourself a self-compassionate letter. Overall, self-compassion has been shown to help individuals have less fear of failure, stay motivated to change for the better, cope and adjust to trauma, improve interpersonal skills and relationships and have higher life satisfaction.
How can I practice self-compassion?
A great way to ease into self-compassionate thinking is by scheduling time in your day to practice. Sit down for 10 minutes and write yourself a letter of encouragement. If you already journal, try shifting your entries to including a few kind words about yourself. If you practice meditation, repeat an affirmative statement of love for yourself. It might not come naturally at first, but with continued practice these techniques will lead to feelings of contentment for yourself. There are several online resources through the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, which include downloadable guided self-compassion meditations and exercises. Meditation can be accompanied by physical touch, such as placing your hand over your heart or giving yourself a hug. This may sound peculiar, but since we are mammals our bodies are wired to release oxytocin and decrease cortisol with gentle warm touch. Ultimately, just giving your arm a soft squeeze can alter your biochemistry and decrease your stress response.
Gratitude is very important for boosting self-compassion because there is not always joy and pleasure in life. Everyone goes through periods of suffering where it’s helpful to draw on pleasant memories from the past. Practicing gratitude allows you to access these positive memories more easily. Positive emotions may fluctuate but if we are aware of what we are grateful for, we are less likely to engage in self-blame when events take a turn for the worse.
Dr. Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor and the founding editor-and-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, studied gratitude journaling in more than a thousand individuals. He found that people who journaled gratitude consistently had more optimism and happiness, stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, exercise more and sleep longer, are more generous and compassionate and feel less lonely and isolated. It can be helpful to create timed reminders for gratitude, otherwise it’s difficult to keep up with consistent journaling. But even if you don’t have the time to journal consistently, we can all list three things we’re grateful for when brushing our teeth in the morning and evening. It’s especially easy to practice grateful thinking while we’re doing something we enjoy. Maybe that’s painting, rock-climbing, starting a new book, listening to music while cooking or watching the rainfall while you’re cozy indoors. There are many simple pleasures in life that we take for granted, but making it a daily routine to articulate your appreciation will have a positive effect on how you feel about your life and yourself. It may feel a bit contrived, but if it’s really hard to think of things, start small and work your way up. Examples of the small things I’m personally grateful for are: when I’m running late for work and the bus is actually on time or when I forget my laundry in the laundromat, go back the next day and all my clothes are still there! Savoring life’s joys will make the good last longer and the bad seem less important. Over time, you can focus these grateful moments on yourself. Start by reflecting on positive choices that you have made and give yourself credit for positive life events, no matter how small! This will allow you to reap the benefits of a grateful and self-compassionate lifestyle.
Cognitive behavioral techniques
According to the Dialogues of Clinical Neuroscience, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the gold standard for treating anxiety disorders. At Joyable, we offer an online program based on cognitive behavioral therapy to people with social anxiety. However, some of the techniques of CBT can be practiced on your own. CBT is all about changing your perspective on a situation. So to feel comfortable in your own skin, you’d work on changing your perspective about yourself. The thoughts that immediately flood your mind are called automatic thoughts. When we criticize ourselves, these thoughts automatically lead us to perceive ourselves negatively and perhaps believe others see us negatively as well. However, we don’t truly know how others see us and this negative self-view leads us to assume the worst.
Here is a CBT exercise for you to try:
Recall a recent situation in which you beat yourself up. Write down your negative critical automatic thoughts. Ask yourself if you would say those things to a close friend or even someone you don’t particularly like. Now come up with a more realistic and kind alternative thought that you would say to a friend. Potentially, make this thought your mantra for whenever you start feeling bad about yourself. For example:
I always screw up; I am a failure!
Alternative “friend” thought:
You are having a hard time right now, but you always land on your feet. You can learn and improve from mistakes.
No one here likes me, I shouldn’t like myself.
Alternative “friend” thought:
I’m not positive no one likes me and even if they don’t I’m still a good person. I deserve to have friends who like me.
Now let’s return back to Dr. Kristin Neff’s core values of self-compassion and see how they apply to cognitive behavioral techniques:
- Kindness: This first component involves actively stopping self-critical thoughts when they enter your mind and replacing them with a kinder “friend” perspective. As in the CBT example above, is it truly beneficial to berate yourself for every mistake, rejection, and unfortunate circumstance? What would you tell a friend to cheer them up?
- Common Humanity: You can find common humanity all around you, it’s just hard to realize sometimes that others are also experiencing pain and self-hatred. Within the Joyable program, we have a Community page which allows individuals with social anxiety around the world to connect to each other. They are able to support each other through exercises and realize they are not alone. Some people wish to avoid the labels of mental illness or social anxiety because these can be stigmatizing and leave one feeling isolated. However, the community is a great space to see that so many other people are experiencing similar anxieties, fears, and hopes to conquer goals, but need support.
- Mindfulness: Self-awareness is essential in replacing automatic negative thoughts with a helpful, alternative, “friend-perspective” thought. This does not only pertain to anxiety-provoking moments. If we apply this to all unnecessarily self-critical thoughts, we are practicing self-compassion. It’s important to remember that replacing this negativity with a kinder remark is not avoiding the pain of your mistake. It’s not over-indulgent or self-pitying. Allow yourself to feel the pain without making promises to yourself that you’ll be perfect from here on out. Mindfulness is realistic kindness and recognizing that we are only human. There is no need to dig the knife in further by telling yourself “I’m stupid,” “I’ll never succeed,” or “I’m unlovable.” Ditch those statements from your vocabulary and appreciate the body and mind that you have.
A New Compassionate You
It’s incredible how a little bit of forgiveness and kindness can make you feel more content. You’ll be better prepared for the disappointments and upsets that come with life. Start by becoming an example for others, be empathetic, show mercy and tenderness not only to your friends and family but also to yourself. Practicing self-compassion will ultimately change your perception of yourself and you will finally be comfortable in your own skin!
Rella is a Client Coach at Joyable who loves helping clients find happiness through achieving their goals. Rella enjoys biking, hiking and exploring the natural beauty of the Bay Area.
- Emmons, Robert. 2013. How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times. Retrieved from:http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_can_help_you_through_hard_times
- Graham, Linda. 2014. How Self-Compassion Beats Rumination. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_self_compassion_beats_rumination
- Neff, Kristin and Dahm, Katie. 2003. Self-Compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/Mindfulness_and_SC_chapter_in_press.pdf
- Neff, Kristin. 2016. The Chemicals of Care: How Self-Compassion Manifests in Our Bodies. Retrieved from: http://self-compassion.org/the-chemicals-of-care-how-self-compassion-manifests-in-our-bodies/
- Neff, Kristin. 2011. Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem and Well-Being. Retrieved from: http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/SC_SE_Well_being.pdf
- Otte, C. (2011). Cognitive behavioral therapy in anxiety disorders: current state of the evidence. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 13(4), 413–421.