Be Kind…to Yourself: How cultivating self-compassion makes you more resilient.
#4 in 7 research-backed ways to grow resilience in times of uncertainty.
What is Resilience?
Dealing with change, setbacks, loss, and grief is an inevitable and normal part of life.
Resilience is the psychological strength that allows some people to adapt, thrive, and/or return to their baseline faster after adverse experiences happen.
Resilient people are emotionally agile — they don’t ignore “bad” things or negative feelings, nor do they wallow in negative emotions. They have a “fitting” emotional response — neither overblown, nor callous, nor insensitive.
Fortunately, a person is not “resilient” or “not resilient”: you can always grow your resilience because resilience is a set of skills that can be grown through practice, not a static trait of individuals.
But what happens when “normal” for everyone changes dramatically and seemingly overnight?
In times of extreme collective uncertainty and adversity, like that posed by our new COVID-19 reality, it’s particularly important we all practice resilience daily so we can maintain our health, compassion, grace, and equanimity in the face of change and fear.
This is #4 in a series of ten research-backed ways to grow your resilience. Very important to discuss after “cultivating control” is self-compassion :)
Self-Compassion and Resilience
One of the downsides of living in an individualistic culture that stresses an ethic of independence and achievement is that we tend to blame ourselves (and others!) for any failures, rather than note the systems that surround us or adopt the patience to see things through. Did you know that poor children who believe in meritocracy are more likely to blame themselves for problems they can’t control?
We’ve drunk the kool-aid, or at least many of us have — but instead of helping us “succeed” this individualism and self-critical attitude fosters judgment of self and others rather than the connection, meaning, and joy we all need to be healthy and whole.
It’s easy to think, “but if I’m not hard on myself and self-critical then I won’t achieve my goals or do the thing or stop doing the thing.” It turns out, however, that cultivating self-compassion is key to being resilient.
Self-compassion quite simply means treating oneself with kindness and concern when experiencing negative events.
It’s a way of relating to ourselves kindly when we fail, experience adversity, or make mistakes.
When we practice self-compassion, we are *more* likely to be motivated to improve, persist, and achieve our goals. Plus, people who practice self-compassion have a myriad of positive outcomes, including: better health, higher sense of well-being and mental health, finding ways to cope better with adverse experiences, adopting healthier strategies to address anxiety and PTSD symptoms, maintaining better romantic relationships, perceive better social support (cultivating connection is another core component of resilience), and to develop a deeper compassion for humanity.
Compassion means, “to suffer with”. The Latin root of the word, compassion, is pati, which means “to suffer.” The prefix, com-, means “with.” If we are a compassionate friend, self-compassion is offering the same kindness to ourselves as we would to a friend. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the research of self-compassion, breaks these down into three core components of self-compassion:
- Mindfulness —you notice the suffering; you feel moved so that your heart responds to their pain and you feel caring and the desire to help lessen the suffering.
- Self-kindness — you offer understanding and kindness about failures and mistakes, rather than judgment.
- Remembering imperfection and suffering is part of the shared human experience. You’re not alone.
This last part is important: self-compassion releases us from the isolating negative experience or shame and allows us to recognize that all humans are imperfect, we all make mistakes, we all experience failures and setbacks and grief, and thus our imperfection, mistakes, and experiences actually connect us with other humans and the broader human experience. If we feel we’ve genuinely caused harm to another, then moving from shame to guilt (thank you Brene Brown!) about our behavior will help us make the necessary apologies and reparations to our relationship.
Practices to Cultivate Self-Compassion
1. Ask yourself, “How would you treat a friend?”
Stop for a moment and reflect on whatever it is you’re struggling with. If a close friend (who you think the world of) came to you and described their situation and feelings exactly as you’re experiencing them, what would you say to them to support them with love and kindness? How would you draw their attention to their strengths and resources? How would you validate their experience and their humanity?
Now, is this how you’re talking to yourself? If not, why not? Try to offer yourself the same wisdom, love, support, and guidance as you might offer your cherished friend.
I find it’s helpful to actually think through the words I would say, and give them to myself in third person: “Erin, of course this feels hard — it IS hard. And, we can do hard things. It’s normal to be upset or to feel bad — what do you need right now to feel better? What’s a healthy coping mechanism you can use right now? What’s a coping mechanism…that’s not wine? :) What’s one good thing you can do in this moment that will make you feel better?”
OR, sometimes, “It’s okay to cry and wallow for a little — this merits it! Like, WTF, life?! You won’t feel this way forever, do what you need to in this moment. Binge-watch Outlander, drink that wine, eat that popcorn, call those friends, just cry for awhile and stay in bed.”
2. Write it out.
Exploring Self-Compassion Through Writing: Numerous studies have found that writing things out, especially by hand, can help us cope or process difficult emotions — and, Neff and her colleagues have found this works to promote positive sense of self-compassion as well.
This is a three-part exercise –
- Reflect on what’s making you feel inadequate and note the emotions that come up.
- Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of a friend who loves you unconditionally.
- Take a break, then come back and re-read the letter.
Very helpful, full directions are on Dr. Neff’s website here. Try it when you’re having a particularly rough time, or schedule into a weekly or monthly practice.
3. Imagine Future You Reflecting Back on Current You.
Imagine yourself twenty years in the future.
Will this matter?
If no, imagine how it feels to not even really remember this moment well. Put it into perspective: how many bigger things are happening or will happen to cause this to be a minor blip?
If yes, how will you tell the story of this moment? How will you have overcome it — learned from it, grown from it. How will this suffering allow you to connect with others or know your self and strength better? What else will you have achieved and overcome by that time? How will this experience and this pain be woven into the narrative of the stronger, more compassionate, more grounded person you will have become?
Additional exercises, meditations, and additional resources are available on Dr. Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion website. This is a great interview overview. Her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself explains the science, her journey, and practices. GreaterGood has a number of resources and articles.
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