Do you regularly try to motivate yourself with self-criticism and mental projections about all the bad things that will happen to you if you don’t get it together? While this approach may create that extra surge of adrenaline to meet your work deadline, cold call the next potential client, get to the gym, or get your house cleaned before the in-laws visit, it comes at a cost. You end up feeling bad about yourself a lot of the time. You get into constant “fight or flight” mode, trying to avoid the negative imagined consequences, which messes with your cortisol and other stress hormones. You get overwhelmed, and decide to zone out playing video games or posting mindlessly on social media, or you rebel and eat, drink, or spend too much, thus creating more self-disgust. If this sounds familiar, perhaps you need a healthy dose of self-compassion.
What is Self-Compassion?
Kristin Neff, the most well-known self-compassion researcher, calls it “a healthier way of relating to yourself.” Rather than beating yourself with a stick to get things done, you extend kindness and understanding to yourself. It’s like saying to yourself “I know you’re trying your best, but life is tough and you don’t always get it right, because you’re only human.” It also has a component of mindful self-awareness, in which you acknowledge your own emotions, but don’t get overidentified with them or use them as excuses not to meet your goals.
Self-Compassion Focuses on Unmet Needs
Self-compassion is like Mindfulness Plus. Being mindful means gently noticing what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing right now, rather than operating on automatic pilot. It involves asking “Is this what you want to be doing ,or do you need to gently guide yourself back to center?” Self-compassion expands on this by asking: “What is it that you need?” Often we don’t do the things we are supposed to do because we have conflicting emotional needs that aren’t being met, and our resentment about these is getting in our way. We can’t just keep pushing ourselves as if we are machines; eventually something is going to give. When we have unmet needs for rest, enjoyment, companionship, acknowledgment, comfort, meaning, food, sex, and so on, these are going to create emotional suffering that interferes with our ability to be goal-oriented. Self-compassion acknowledges this suffering, and allows us to take time to replenish ourselves and get back in emotional balance so we can truly commit to our stated goals and persevere through the hard times.
The Benefits of Self-Compassion
Research shows that people who practice self-compassion have better mental health, less anxiety and depression, and are just as successful at meeting goals as those who don’t. One longer-term study showed that self-compassion helped people to adjust better, after a divorce. When we get disappointed in life, our natural tendency might be to ask ourselves what we did wrong, but saying to ourselves, “You did the best you could given what you knew at the time,” can help us to feel better about ourselves and give us courage to begin rebuilding our lives.
Self-Compassion and Emotional Eating
Self-compassion can also help us with emotional eating and other types of compulsive or addictive behavior. One study showed that college students asked to eat doughnuts, who were given a self-compassionate message by the experimenter (everybody eats this stuff sometimes), were less likely to overeat later on when faced with temptation. Those not getting the message may have been more likely to get demoralized and give up on their important goals. Emotional distress interferes with our healthy focus and can derail us from our goals if we get too swept up in it. If willpower is like a muscle, adding self-cruelty to the mix makes the weight too heavy to lift.
Why Self-Compassion Works
Ironically, harsh self-criticism seems to create an inner rebelliousness that makes us want to give up on our healthy goals. Self-compassion acknowledges the reality that it’s an unhealthy moment, not an unhealthy life, and we have a choice what the next moment is going to be. And it shows us that we can be on our own side as we walk the path.
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical and health psychologist with a private practice in Mill Valley, CA. She also has an academic and research background and provides workshops for the public and health professionals. She helps clients and providers address the effects of life stress on relationships, self-care, health, career, and parenting. Dr Greenberg applies her knowledge of Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness, and Affect Regulation to promote growth and resilience. She was a Professor at Alliant International University, San Diego and a Research Psychologist at the VA Medical Center, San Diego. She currently has a private clinical practice in Mill Valley, CA and is the psychologist for the Slim in Seven program at the Bay Clubs in Marin and San Francisco. She is an expert curator for Organized Wisdom.com and has served on the Editorial Boards of Health Psychology and Annals of Behavioral Medicine and as a Special Interest Group Chair of Complementary and Alternative Medicine for the Society of Behavioral Medicine. She has published more than 50 research articles, chapters, and conference abstracts, in journals such as Pain, Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, the Journal of Psychosomatic Research and Biofeedback & Self-Regulation. She was a reviewer of recent national guidelines for treatment of chronic pain. She has also contributed to Positive Psychology Explorng the Best in People (Praeger), the Handbook of Health Psychology & Behavioral Medicine (Guilford), and the Writing Cure (Guilford) among others. Born in South Africa, she came to the US in 1986 to study Clinical Psychology at Stony Brook, University.She subsequently completed Postdoctoral study in Health Psychology at the City University of New York. Missing the warm weather, she moved out to California, where she has lived happily ever since. She has a husband in biotech, a daughter in Elementary school and is an active, engaged parent. Her next life goal is to make her knowledge accessible via webcasts, e-books, seminars, and books.