Self-Compassion: Trick or Treat?

When you think about self-compassion, do you feel worried that it’s a trick ~ that if you treat yourself with kindness, something bad will happen? Even if you know, intellectually, that self-compassion is important and something you want to cultivate, there are probably some parts of you that aren’t so sure. If you have a history of being a perfectionist, or feeling that you need to be productive at all times, you may have some resistance to practicing self-compassion!

If you feel this way, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your doubts and misconceptions. They are true aspects of your experience right now. You can think of them as part of your shadow ~ the things that you wish you didn’t believe, or that you may try not to believe. However, those beliefs will persist (and likely become more entrenched) if you don’t acknowledge them and meet them with kindness.

When someone has doubts or fears about self-compassion, I do my best to respond with understanding. I recognize that there are reasons why they feel and think the way they do. We all have strategies that we have relied on to navigate challenging situations. The idea that those strategies might not always be the most effective can leave us feeling defensive and scared.

It may be painful to live with self-judgment, but you might worry that if you don’t criticize yourself and keep yourself in line, your life will fall apart. What if being kinder to yourself causes you to stop going to work and instead sit on the couch and eat ice cream all day?

In other words, what if you can’t trust yourself? This is one of the main hurdles that many people have in their self-compassion practice.

There are studies that refute most concerns about self-compassion. Research suggests that self-compassionate people take greater personal responsibility for their actions and that they have high personal standards. They are also more compassionate toward others, better able to cope with tough situations (like divorce, trauma, or chronic pain), more likely to compromise, more likely to engage in healthier behaviors like eating well and exercising.

However, research studies only address the concerns of your rational mind. They don’t address the emotional concerns of mistrusting yourself on a deep level; fearing that you have to be coerced or dominated in order to live a “successful” life.

Self-compassion isn’t about forcing yourself to become someone else, someone who doesn’t have doubts or “negative” thoughts or feelings. It’s about (1) recognizing the truth about your experience of suffering as it is: discomfort, uneasiness, fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, doubt; and (2) responding with acceptance and warmth to what is true.

This means that if you have doubts, you can respond to them with compassion. Try acknowledging them by saying, for example, “I’ve got so many doubts about self-compassion. I bet there’s a reason why I feel this strongly. I wonder what it is?” You can also remind yourself that most people have some doubt about most things, so you are not alone.

One way to normalize and get to know your doubts is by journaling about them. If you’d like to explore self-compassion, and you notice some hurdles, find a quiet place where you can write undisturbed for about 30 minutes. See what happens when you acknowledge the truth about how you feel, and then bring warmth and curiosity to what you find. Know that it’s all an experiment.