The importance of self-compassion and self-acceptance
Positive well-being – sometimes we are our own greatest obstacles to achieving happiness
Attending to and understanding our inner voice is the first step in distancing ourselves from constant self-judgment. Photograph: iStock
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – Dalai Lama
Often, we are our own greatest obstacles to achieving happiness and well-being. Sometimes we criticize ourselves more than others will, putting ourselves down, and the enemy is within rather than without. Many people have a negative voice in their head that blames them for problems and ridicules them for faults.
When something goes wrong, rather than seeing it as a mishap, the negative voice assigns personal blame: “What is the matter with me that no one likes me? Why do I always push people away?” This negative self-judgment can make lives miserable. People with mental health problems such as depression or anxiety may also add self-blame, making things worse: “What is the matter with me that I get so down? I hate myself for feeling this way.”
Sometimes this negative voice is the result of childhood experiences or the internalized criticisms of others – we may take the negative ways other people treat us to heart and think they are true.
In the age of social media and the internet, self-judgment is more rife than ever. In the virtual world we are bombarded with the perfect lives of others that are impossible to live up to, which can make us feel inadequate in comparison. With the pressures and judgments of social media coming at teenagers 24/7, many now feel insecure and constantly judge themselves, and perhaps feel they are not as good as their peers.
Self-esteem and mental health
In building our own well-being and positive mental health, we need to separate ourselves from the judgments of others as well as our own self-judgements. The goal is to reach a position of compassionate self-acceptance. This is not about excusing ourselves of mistakes or denying our responsibility in problems. It is about removing negative self-judgments and learning forgiveness and acceptance. Psychologist John Bowlby said learning to accept oneself was good enough.
Attending to ‘self-talk’
One way of moving to self-acceptance is noticing our inner voice and the “self-talk” we engage in during the day. What do we say to ourselves when things go wrong and what self-judgments does this reveal? For example, if you find you berate yourself with negative self-talk when you make a mistake, perhaps this reveals a perfectionist self-belief such as “I must get it right at all costs” or “I’m worthless if I lose”. Such a judgemental self-belief holds you to impossible standards. Or if you get depressed looking at “perfect” lives on social media, perhaps it reveals an unrealistic comparison to others and a lack of self-acceptance. Attending to and understanding our self-talk is the first step in distancing ourselves from constant self-judgment.
Creating a new script
Discovering our daily self-talk reveals the script we have set ourselves for our lives, but it also gives us the freedom to change it. When supporting people with mental health problems, I always invite them to change their inner chatter and to draw from a more compassionate script. The key is to find an inner conversation that still describes the same reality but in a much more compassionate way. For example, if we feel rejected in a relationship we can easily say “I’m unlovable” rather than “It did not work out, but I am glad I tried”. Or if we don’t succeed in a project, rather than saying “I am a failure”, we could say “I learned a lot from this experience that I can use again”.
Becoming more compassionate
When engaging in punitive self-talk, a good way to become more self-compassionate is to imagine how you would respond to someone you loved dearly who was experiencing what you are going through. What would you say to them? Would you criticize them harshly or would you be more supportive? Even if they were responsible and deserved to be held to account, would you be compassionate and forgiving?
Recognising our strengths
A major contributor to positive self-esteem and well-being is being aware of our strengths and having the opportunity to use them in the service of others. People who judge themselves harshly are usually focused on their weaknesses and are out of touch with their inherent strengths. A step forward is recognizing and taking credit for our strengths. Sometimes our weaknesses provide clues to what our strengths may be.
Many people I work with are depressed because of their awareness and sensitivity to particular losses. This sensitivity is often a strength they can use in their healing. Many people with anxiety have powerful imaginations that are used to visualize terrible outcomes about which they ruminate. I invite them to use the strength of their imaginations to visualize things going well and to focus on making progress towards this new positive goal.
Tips for self-acceptance and self-compassion
Take a few minutes each day to reflect on your mental chatter and self-talk as you go about your daily life. Use a journal to write down what you notice. For example, when something challenging happens, what do you say to yourself about it? Write down any self-judgments you make and examine them carefully:
- Are they true or just harsh judgments?
- What is a more compassionate way of looking at what has happened?
- Write down a more self-compassionate statement you could use instead for the situation.
Dr John Sharry is a Social Worker and Psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He has published 14 books, including Positive Parenting: Bringing up responsible, well-behaved and happy children. For details of courses and seminars see solutiontalk.ie. The next article in the Positive Well-Being series appears in two weeks and describes the importance of relationships and belonging.