Karin Lawson is a licensed psychologist, certified eating disorder therapist and writer in private practice. She’s located in Miami, FL. Dr. Lawson is currently the Vice President of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals – Miami Chapter, as well as the President-Elect of the Miami-Dade-Monroe Psychological Association. In this week’s blog post, Dr. Lawson discusses the idea of self-compassion and the importance of being kind to yourself.
There is a common misconception in this world that harsh criticism creates results. You see it with some athletic coaches, some teachers, some parents and I bet if you listen to yourself, you’ll definitely hear it happening with your own internal self-talk. Unfortunately, many people struggle with a fear that kindness creates laziness and it potentially creates too much permission for one’s self . . . and that as a result the fear is that we then become out of control. This idea can be found in relation to food, to fun, to sleep, to friendship, to pleasure, to relaxation . . . the list goes on.
The good news is that we actually don’t have to do that to ourselves to help ourselves. We don’t have to harshly put ourselves in our place. In fact, it’s actually NOT effective. The research in the last few years on self-compassion is showing some amazing connections to those qualities that we’re actually striving for with the harsh criticism (FYI, if you don’t like the term self-compassion make up your own . . . maybe internal kindness, inner compassion . . . get creative). What the research is finding is that self-compassion is associated with healthier relationships, successful goal pursuit and less procrastination, as well as resilience when goals are not met (Hope, Koestner & Milyavskaya, 2014; Williams, Stark, Foster, 2008)
Self-criticism on the other hand is related to eating disorder severity (Kelly & Carter, 2013), predictive of depressive relapse (Teasdale & Cox, 2001) as well as numerous other struggles, including anxiety. There’s so much more research to share with you, but my hope is that this is enough to convince you to give self-compassion some space in your life and that it actually might take you to a more fulfilling life. How do you do that? I’m so glad you asked.
The most basic way is to listen to some guided exercises and make it a practice. Please note the word PRACTICE. It’s not an achievement. Our critical voices will still pop up, but this is how we counter it and work to create a new voice of comfort, support and encouragement. Here are a couple of great resources from leading researchers, authors and clinicians on self-compassion to get you started right away:
Dr. Kristen Neff http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations
Dr. Christopher Germer http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/meditations_downloads.php
Some people will wonder why this has to be in the form of meditation. Settling (or learning to settle) allows our parasympathetic nervous system to activate, which means our relaxation response is getting some time on the field. When we allow ourselves to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, we become more receptive and open (and therefore less defensive and dismissive). So, when trying new things it’s particularly great to allow ourselves to get into the most open and receptive state we possibly can. If you’re saying to yourself “I’m not good at meditation.” My answer is: There is no good meditation. It is what it is. Your self-compassion can actually start right there with that critical eye toward your meditation ability.
The other starting point with self-compassion is to catch yourself when you’re putting yourself down or being particularly harsh and demeaning to yourself. Would you talk to your dearest friend, loved one, therapist or pet that way? When you catch yourself, you create more awareness of how much you’re doing it and you’re creating a pause. One way to extend that pause is to ask yourself what your dearest friend, loved one, therapist or pet would say to you? Most likely (and hopefully) they would not be the type of being to put you down, but rather to comfort, encourage and raise you up. Allowing yourself the headspace to take that in a little bit is part of the work. It’s not easy though. It sounds all rainbows and butterflies, but when we are tapping into self-compassion we are also tapping into pain, so it is a bitter sweet experience. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have bittersweet, than emotional pain (ie. Self-criticism) on top of emotional pain.
Hope N, Koestner R, Milyavskaya M. The role of self-compassion in goal pursuit and well-being among university freshmen. Self Identity. 2014;13(5):579-593
Kelly AC, Carter JC. Why self-critical patients present with more severe eating disorder pathology: The mediating role of shame. Br J Clin Psychol. 2013;52(2):148-161
Teasdale JD, Cox SG. Dysphoria: self-devaluative and affective components in recovered depressed patients and never depressed controls. Psychol Med. 2001;31(7):1311-1316.
Williams JG, Stark SK, Foster EE. Start today or the very last day? The relationships among self-compassion, motivation, and procrastination. Am J Psychol Res. 2008;4(1):37-44