When it comes to being a good friend, most of us know what to do. If we see someone we love struggling, we're kind, empathetic and supportive. If a dear friend were to be fired from a job, passed up for a promotion, dumped by a spouse or going through a difficult time, no doubt we'd be there to listen. We'd offer wise words to boost their spirits.
Yet, when it comes to befriending ourselves, most of us are downright evil.
When we make a mistake, we say nasty things to ourselves that we'd never say to a stranger, let alone a close friend. We berate ourselves for small failings and ruminate on our shortcomings. Almost without realizing it, we become real jerks to ourselves. In fact, research shows that if people followed the Golden Rule of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," the majority of folks wouldn't have friends. What's more, the way we criticize and judge ourselves is actually damaging to our mental health -- it leads to depression, anxiety, and poor performance at work. The antidote, scientists say, is practicing self-compassion.
"There are hundreds of studies that show the health benefits of self compassion," says Kristin Neff, an associate professor and pioneer in the field of self compassion at the University of Texas at Austin. "Self compassion is linked to less anxiety, less stress, less depression, greater happiness, and greater coping skills."
The negativity bias
So why is it that we're much harder on ourselves than we are with others? Turns out, human beings are hardwired for negativity. The negativity bias allows us to perceive danger and threat more easily. This bias was essential to our survival when we were trying to steer clear of saber tooth tigers. But in modern times, the threats we perceive exist largely in our minds. An offhand comment from your boss or a sideways glance from your co-worker could feel like a saber tooth tiger lying in wait but, more likely, it's just your mind playing tricks on you. So instead of directing our energy to fight off the tiger, we fight ourselves. We direct our aggression inward. Essentially, we become our own worst enemies.
Blocks to self compassion
When most people hear the words "self-compassion", their eyes tend to glaze over; the term feels fuzzy and "soft," says Standford psychologist Emma Seppälä, the science director of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
Self compassion, Seppälä says in this interview, "allows you to be successful without sabotaging yourself."
Research shows that one of the biggest blocks that gets in the way of people being self-compassionate is the very firm belief that compassion will undermine their motivation. Many people worry they won't be successful, or that they won't reach their goals if they're kind to themselves.
"In fact," says Neff, "Research shows that it's just the opposite.
Typically, people motivate themselves by using harsh self criticism. But the research shows that when people are really hard on themselves (either because they made a mistake or fell short) they become afraid of failure.
"We start developing performance anxiety and we don't do as well, so we fail more," Neff says. "Then we lose confidence and we tend to give up."
In other words, people who beat themselves get trapped in a negative feedback loop. On the other hand, people who recognize they're going to make mistakes and cut themselves some slack, develop resiliency.
"People who are more self compassionate, when they do fail, they pick themselves up and try again. It's not the end of the world," Neff says. "They maintain their self confidence because they don't slam themselves with self criticism."
As a result, they are less likely to give up and more likely to keep trying until they reach their goals.
In scientific terms, self compassion is defined as the ability to treat yourself with the same kindness, care and support as you would a loved one or close friend who's struggling.
With a little practice, anyone can learn to be more self-compassionate, Neff says.
For starters, give yourself permission to treat yourself with the same care as you would a loved or friend. A simple acknowledgement that you are worthy of support and compassion goes a long way to breaking the bad habit of criticism and negative self talk.
Then, be mindful of the words you say to yourself. When you make a mistake or let someone down, do you immediately tell yourself you're an idiot? Or can you acknowledge the error and promise to do better next time? Can you recognize that you're human and that all humans makes mistakes?
Lastly, what tone do you use when you talk to yourself. Is it harsh or disparaging? Do you silently scream at yourself when something goes wrong? Do you berate yourself? If you wouldn't use that tone with a friend or child, why would you use it with yourself?
As with all skills you wish to master, self compassion requires practice. The more you do it, the better (and kinder) you get.