person in a yellow long sleeved shirt is standing and hugging themselves while smiling. They are against a plain purple background

Do You Fear Self-Compassion?

By Louise L. Hayes, PhD, Joseph V. Ciarrochi, PhD, Ann Bailey, MPsych, coauthors of What Makes Your Stronger

Self-compassion is the willingness to respond to your pain and suffering in the same way a good friend might, with warmth, patience, and understanding. That sounds easy, right? But you know it isn’t. Self-compassion depends on many factors, including culture, family, and gender.

For example, in some collective cultures, self-compassion is seen as a form of wisdom and is salient within every-day life. In contrast, other cultures emphasize individualism and uncompromising independence, viewing self-compassion as a negative attribute.

Masculinity and power within a culture might also lead us to devalue self-compassion. By adulthood, many people fear self-compassion.

This fear can be intense, especially if you’ve been tough on yourself to survive. Your advisor learns to say things like: Don’t let your guard down or you will get hurt and You need to be hard on yourself or you will never get everything done.

Which of the following fear statements resonate with you?

» If I’m kind to myself, I will become a weak person.

» I don’t deserve kindness.

» A harsh advisor keeps me from making mistakes or keeps me disciplined.

» The only way I can motivate myself is through self-criticism.

» A harsh advisor helps me keep my guard up and protects me. If you have been immersed in hyper-tough messages for years, consider how this has affected you.

» Ask yourself: ‘Am I afraid of compassion?

As you think about your self-criticisms, do you think they are justified to keep you performing or strong? Not according to the data. For example, speaking harshly to people not only fails to motivate them, but it also demotivates them and reduces their sense of well-being. Young people who speak harshly to themselves tend to experience a reduction in hope and social support over time.

Finally, people who lack self-compassion tend to have worse mental health problems, worse response to setbacks, and less motivation to improve. It’s a myth to think self-compassion will make you weak.

Here is a simple way to understand how your harsh advisor undermines you. Imagine you are working for an abusive boss who sounds just like your harshest self-talk. Every time you make a small mistake, the boss says things like, “What the hell is wrong with you?” Even when you are doing well, they say, “You’re not doing enough. You’re going to lose your job if you don’t do more.” You would probably be afraid. Maybe you would try to please the boss initially, but that would only reinforce their cruelty. They might end up abusing you more: “You’ve screwed up again. You’re useless at this.” What would happen to your motivation over time? Odds are, you would become demotivated and less effective at your work. You might even do things to undermine your boss, such as speaking badly about them to coworkers.

You might be starting to see how self-compassion works now. Remember the abusive study partner in the example above? What would happen if that partner started acting like a supportive friend, being encouraging and patient? They might say things like, “It’s normal to be stressed about the exam. Try your best. You are doing well.” Would you expect the student to do better on their math test? Would you expect them to be happier? The answer is a resounding yes. You can break out of self-abuse by becoming a friend to yourself. And recall how you felt kindly toward the student earlier; extending compassion to others is helpful too.

Excerpt from What Makes You Stronger pp. 95-98

Louise L. Hayes, PhD, is an international acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer, speaker, clinical psychologist, and researcher collaborating on interventions for adults and young people. Hayes has published research trials using ACT, and is coauthor of The Thriving Adolescent—the book that introduced DNA-v—plus the best-selling books, Your Life Your Way and Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life for Teens.

Joseph V. Ciarrochi, PhD, is a professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University. He has published more than 140 scientific journal articles and many books, including the widely acclaimed Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life and The Weight Escape. Ciarrochi has been honored with more than four million dollars in research funding. His work has been discussed on TV and radio, and in magazines and newspaper articles. He is ranked in the top 2 percent of scientists in the world across all disciplines.

Ann Bailey, MPsych, is an experienced ACT practitioner and supervisor who developed an award-winning public mental health service for the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and anxiety disorders—integrating ACT, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Ann supervises a team of clinicians as director of her ACT-based Anxiety and Stress Clinic.

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