Knowing oneself comes from attending with compassionate curiosity to what is happening within.Gabor Maté, MD
Do you understand the meaning of self-compassion?
I don’t know about you, but for years, I misunderstood the meaning of self-compassion. It wasn’t something I thought about regularly, so I really wasn’t even consciously aware of my lack of understanding.
My relationship with self-compassion evolved over the years – from indifference to utmost priority. This helpful tool, I’ve learned, creates peace and also helps me achieve my goals.
I owe my current appreciation of self-compassion to my teacher, Dr. Gabor Maté. It wasn’t until I studied with him, learning a psychotherapeutic process called Compassionate Inquiry (CI), that I was able to connect the dots and fully recognize self-compassion as a primary and fundamental process that allows for growth.
This wouldn’t have been my perspective if you’d asked me 10 years ago.
Truth be told, there was a part of me that used to think self-compassion was for the weak. I thought self-compassion was the angle you took to give yourself a way out for not keeping your promises or achieving your goals. I perceived it as flowery and sentimental, something you didn’t need if you had grit and will.
In retrospect, I couldn’t have been more misinformed.
I believe many of us don’t lean into self-compassion because we don’t really know what it means. (I mean, why would we? How many of us took a self-compassion course in school, or had a sit-down conversation at home about what it means?) And because of that, we lack an understanding of the benefits we gain with self-compassion.
When I finally experienced self-compassion and learned the true meaning of the word, I also understood the power of it– and I’d love to share it with you.
Let’s begin with what self-compassion isn’t:
Self-compassion isn’t throwing ourselves a pity party.
Pity is experienced when we perceive ourselves as less than others. That’s the opposite of having compassion for ourselves.
Self-pity limits us because we fundamentally believe that others are better than us. It’s hard to experience self-compassion from a place of constant lacking and a feeling of “not good enough.”
When we pity ourselves, we lower our standards and let ourselves off the hook for not accomplishing what we want. This is a form of self-sabotage.
Indulgence can be fun.
But if we’re not conscious about our indulgence – choosing what, when, where, and how we indulge in a way that serves us – we’re letting indulgence drive us.
If we’re not conscious, we can stumble into the shadow side of indulgence – which is addiction.
This can include the common addictive substances we associate with addiction, but also the less frowned-upon (but just as insidious) forms of addiction: work, shopping, eating, TV, social media, and gaming, to name a few.
If we’re honest, we know when we’ve crossed that line because a deep part of us knows that we’re harming ourselves. Maybe it’s harming our body, our relationships, our health, our bank account, or our ability to achieve our goals and dreams.
Self-compassion never harms ourselves or others.
A client of mine once shared that she doesn’t allow herself to “dwell in self-compassion” because otherwise, she’ll never get anything done. And my past self would have identified with that.
Self-excuse is coming up with the cleverest, most rational, and understandable reason to excuse ourselves from doing the things that will lead us to fulfill our goals.
Similar to self-pity, when we make excuses for ourselves, we let ourselves off the hook. Over time, we sabotage our success and feel worse about ourselves, which feeds into the cycle of self-excuse again.
This isn’t self-compassion.
Because again, self-compassion doesn’t harm us or others.
The cost of not practicing self-compassion
Our society may have conflated self-compassion with self-pity, self-indulgence, or self-excuse, but self-compassion is none of the above.
But when we misunderstand self-compassion to mean any of these things, we naturally don’t want anything to do with it. Especially if we’re ambitious, performance-orientated, and goal-driven.
And by the way, many achievement-oriented individuals tend to be the least self-compassionate.
But also, many achievement-oriented individuals experience burnout, anxiety, depression, and a general lack of satisfaction despite their achievements.
At the core, self-compassion is understanding the self. Understanding our needs – what needs haven’t been met and what actions we can take to meet those needs, so we can thrive.
To have self-compassion is to constantly take stock of and meet our own needs so that we’re setting ourselves up for success.
Having self-compassion for our past selves is reflecting on moments when we weren’t our “best selves.” And rather than beating ourselves up about it – making ourselves feel “bad,” “shameful,” or “guilty” – we recognize and acknowledge our unmet needs in those moments. The idea is that if our needs were met, we would have achieved a different outcome.
How self-compassion helps you achieve your goals
1. When you’re not feeling “bad,” you’re able to perform better.
But think about something that you’re struggling with right now.
When you really think about the struggle, do you feel “bad” about it? Even if it’s just a little?
If you were to dig into the “bad” (because bad isn’t a feeling), you might find feelings like regret, shame, guilt, and sadness.
If you don’t feel “bad” about your struggles, you’re likely already practicing self-compassion (yay!).
Through the lens of self-compassion, allow yourself to understand why you’re struggling. And you’ll realize these reasons don’t make you “wrong” or “bad.” You’ll understand you’re doing the best with what you have.
For example, maybe I’m struggling because:
- I didn’t get enough rest
- I’m learning something new
- I’m doing something unfamiliar
- I’m scared
- It’s uncomfortable
- I feel insecure
- I don’t want to be disappointed
- I feel alone
- Uncertainty makes me nervous
I’d like to think that none of us would make our child, friend, or family member feel bad about themselves because they’re experiencing any of the above. In fact, if we knew a loved one was having any of these experiences, we’d comfort them and ask what they need and how we can help.
But for some reason, we don’t treat ourselves in this same way.
When we understand the reason behind our struggle, we realize it’s a perfectly natural human experience.
From this place of understanding without judgment, we’re better able to give ourselves what we need, which will help us achieve our goal.
2. When you give yourself what you need, you’re able to perform better.
Be it figuring out how a new camera works, becoming physically fit, or growing a business – if we’re struggling, it’s because we’re not getting enough support.
When we get honest with ourselves and identify the needs we’re not meeting, our next step becomes clear.
Maybe I need more time to watch tutorial videos.
Or maybe I need a strategy to become physically fit.
Or maybe I need an expert with social media knowledge.
Once we identify our needs, it’s easier for our brain to connect the dots and problem-solve. Using the above examples:
I can reset my expectations and give myself more time to learn the new camera, enabling me to demonstrate real competency the next time I need to use my camera.
I can hire a fitness coach or reach out to a friend who is fit and ask them to share what they do, which can lead me to gain quicker results than stumbling through it on my own.
I can interview a few social media experts for their knowledge on growing business reach.
3. When you understand yourself, you create meaningful goals. Meaningful goals naturally inspire and motivate us to perform better.
When we better understand ourselves, we might come back to our original goal and decide it’s really not a goal we want. Often, we might update our goal so that it has greater meaning for us.
Using the former example, by asking myself what’s driving me to:
- Operate this camera
- Get physically fit
- Grow a business
I might realize the goal in and of itself isn’t important, but what’s more meaningful to me is:
- Capturing the birth of my nephew
- Feeling confident
- Creating a better world
Realizing this, I could want to change my original goal from:
“Learn the functionalities of this camera right now,” to “Learn how to take indoor candid shots with this camera by next month.”
“Lose 30 pounds ASAP,” to “Get stronger and gain more energy.”
“Increase social media and marketing presence,” to “Connect with my target audience to create a better world, one person at a time.”
I don’t know about you, but if I had to choose a goal, I’d hands-down rather work on the second goal that’s more inspiring and exciting than the original goal.
There’s nothing wrong with the original goal, but through understanding the self, we have the ability to get to the crux of why we want to do anything.
Reframing our goals to reflect our inner selves creates a more powerful goal that resonates with our whole being. Goals grounded in our truth give us the natural inspiration and motivation to achieve.
Exercise self-compassion today
If you’re interested, when you’re sensing a bit of struggle coming on – ask yourself, “what do I need at this moment that I’m not getting?”
Honestly answer that question.
And like you would to a good friend, child, or loved one – give yourself what you need.
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