By Nicki McCosker-Dell
Meet Gerald (the giraffe) and his kids, Bluey, Dear Dog and Griff. Stay with me here, just let your inner six-year-old take over for a moment; he or she thinks this makes complete sense so far. Never mind that Gerald’s wife is a bear, (her name is Dancing Bear, you will meet her in future posts), and that together they produced three dogs as their children. This is the (beautiful) magic of a six-year-old’s imagination; anything is possible. Bluey has started Prep this year, and one morning he recently he told his dad Gerald that he felt ‘hopeless’ because he couldn’t read as well as some of the others in his class, and even worse he couldn’t spell his own name yet.
Gerald didn’t know what to say in response to Bluey. He was worried Bluey was putting so much pressure on himself… Gerald is a real family-giraffe. You know, he’s very hands on, he drops his kids off at school each day, and always tries to be there for them. And Gerald is a ‘thinker’, so he later made himself a cup of chai tea with a dash of honey (he is cutting back on sugary coffee – it makes him edgy, and no one wants to be around an edgy giraffe). He had a look on-line to see what information he could find, on how he could support Bluey in not being so hard on himself and not getting caught up in comparing himself to his class mates.
Gerald searched for a while, and soon came up with a potential antidote for harsh self-criticism – self-compassion. He came across the work of Kristen Neff, PhD who has conducted pioneering research into the topic. According to Dr Neff, to be self-compassionate involves relating to yourself with kindness and understanding rather than criticising or judging yourself in the face of personal inadequacies, failings or when noticing something about yourself that you don’t like. It also requires that we recognise that painful thoughts, feelings and realities are part of the human experience that we all go through on a regular basis – that we are not alone in struggling to accept some parts of life or ourselves (although we commonly feel alone).
Another important element of engaging in self-compassion is to consciously take a ‘step back’ and notice when we are beating ourselves up for some perceived (or perhaps real) inadequacy, therefore being mindful of harsh thoughts and painful feelings and observing them more objectively rather than getting carried into a downwards spiral by them. When using mindfulness skills, we have greater capacity to allow and accept our difficult emotions and thoughts, and be less ‘identified’ with them. We can also become aware when the chatter in our mind or our inner-critic is unkind, ruthless, nit-picking, mean etc., and consciously make a choice to use more soothing self-talk. So in a nutshell, self-compassion basically means consciously making the effort to treat yourself as you would treat a good friend who you naturally feel empathy and warmth for when they are struggling or in pain. Or in other words, to have your own back.
Kristen also clarifies that self-compassion is not the same as self-pity, self-indulgence or self-esteem. She writes that whilst low self-esteem can have many negative outcomes, it is often perceived that to have high self-esteem requires feeling special and above average, which can lead to relentless comparison of ourselves to others and needing to put ourselves above others. (Note that healthy or authentic self-esteem is much more complex than simply feeling good about oneself, as explained here). She argues that with self-compassion there is no need to compare ourselves to others or to evaluate ourselves highly, as regularly practising self-compassion induces a sense of intrinsic self-worth and self-care that is highly stable (unlike some qualities of self-esteem which can fall down in the instant that we fail).
Finally, Kristen reveals that in the many recent studies into the practice of self-compassion it was found to be very strongly related to a decrease in experiences of depression, anxiety, stress and perfectionism, and an increase in experiences of happiness, life satisfaction, greater motivation, better lifestyle choices and better interpersonal relationships. So it greatly correlates with increased mental well-being overall. (And as an added bonus, if you are prone to procrastination, this article shows how self-compassion may help to overcome this common arch-enemy). And if I haven’t sold you yet, practising self-compassion is a form of emotional intelligence, and high emotional intelligence is strongly associated with success of all kinds.
The next morning on the drive to school Gerald had a chat to Bluey about his reading and writing. Gerald, who speaks in a jovial but surprisingly high-pitched voice, suggested Bluey try to be patient and kind with himself as he was learning to read and write (just as he would be with his best friend). And Gerald explained that he kind of understood how Bluey felt because he too sometimes feels frustrated with himself when he is learning something new. Gerald also made a mental note to himself to role-model being kind and compassionate to himself, next time he was having a rough time of it. I told you he was a thinker.
Having compassion for our own pain and difficult emotions is also an important element of healing from grief, or overwhelming or traumatic life experiences. Nicki McCosker-Dell specialises in grief and trauma counselling; to contact Nicki or make an appointment please click here.