Sara, a patient who has consulted me frequently for help for many years, has been a harsh self-critic, essentially picking up where her parents left off. While therapy has helped her to become more accepting of her shortcomings and occasional failures, Sara still, at times, can berate or belittle herself for an occasional error in judgment, a social gaffe, or even a disappointing experience on a blind date.
Louis, new to psychotherapy, was referred to me by his doctor, who picked up on the fact that Louis appeared to be particularly self-deprecating and did not miss an opportunity to describe a failure or negative experience of which he believed himself to be the likely cause. Physical symptoms as well as self-esteem issues were among the consequences of Louis’s way of relating to himself.
Currently, there is considerable research being done in the area of what is being called “self-compassion,” i.e. how kindly people view themselves. It is commonly observed that many people are much more understanding, tolerant, and supportive of others than they ever are of themselves.
When I hear clients being self-critical or demonstrating a lack of self-compassion, I will frequently ask how they imagine they might have responded to the identical situation if it involved their child, another close relative, or friend instead of themselves. Not surprisingly, words of support and understanding flow freely from their lips, but not when they are the person in question.
Louis and Sara both provide good examples. Recently, Louis was a keynote speaker at a conference where he addressed an audience of over 500 people. Despite the fact that he is an accomplished speaker and usually quite comfortable in front of large audiences, this time he became very anxious and, as a result, experienced difficulty giving his talk. A quiver in his voice, perspiration, and a number of misspoken words upset him deeply and unleashed a torrent of self-criticism, bordering on self-directed verbal abuse. When I asked him how he might have responded to his wife if this had happened to her, he immediately replied, “I’d probably tell her that it was not the end of the world…things like this happen…and she just has to take it in stride and try to do better next time.”
Sara, having regained some of the pounds she lost during a successful weight-loss effort, berated herself for her lack of willpower, her poor self-discipline, and other perceived weaknesses and shortcomings that she believed led to her difficulties with weight control. What if this had been her daughter? You guessed it. The first words in her reply were “It’s okay, honey.”
The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections and personal difficulties may be the first step toward better health. According to a recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope on this subject, people who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic.
Some people, unfortunately, equate being hard on themselves with maintaining high standards of behavior and keeping themselves in line. This way of thinking suggests that if you “lighten up” on yourself by being more tolerant, understanding, and compassionate, you might become too easy on yourself and, therefore, be more prone to subpar performances and failures—not less. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that this is the case. On the other hand, there is evidence that greater self-compassion is associated with better mental and physical health.
The field of self-compassion is still new and studies are underway to determine whether teaching self-compassion actually reduces stress, depression, and anxiety, and leads to more happiness and life satisfaction.