Projecting care inward: why are we more compassionate with others than with ourselves?

I admit: I am guilty.  On the scale of 1-5, testing how much self-compassion we have (1 being lacking in self-compassion and 5 being high in self-compassion, with 3 being the average), I scored a 2.13.  Maybe I am even a hypocrite.  Why is it that so many of us in the helping profession have no difficulty offering unlimited amounts of empathy and compassion to those that we work with, but when it comes to treating ourselves with that same kindness, it’s nearly impossible?  I think that many of my friends and colleagues that help others — counselors, social workers, nurses, caregivers — could empathize with this statement.  I also am certain that many other folks, even those who have no training in garnering empathy and compassion skills, could agree that showing self-compassion is difficult.  As one friend put it:  “we are our harshest critic”.  Those of us who have a career in helping people are ethically expected to engage in self-care, which in turn means treating ourselves with kindness and respect so that we can be psychologically fit to work with our clients.  That can be hard to do if we criticize ourselves more than accept ourselves.

What is self-compassion?   According to a well-known blog on the New York Times’ website, self-compassion refers to “how kindly people view themselves”.  The article also talks about “new research” showing that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step towards better health.  This philosophy doesn’t seem too new to me, but the fact that we neglect to do this rings all too clear.  People who score high on the test of self-compassion tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression and a higher quality of life.  Seems simple, doesn’t it?  The more you offer yourself kindness and acceptance, the less depression you will feel.  Take the test of self-compassion and see how you score.  Is it what you expected?   Higher? Lower?  This test is set up as “26 statements meant to determine how often people view kindly of themselves and whether they recognize that ups and downs are a part of life”.  The latter part of that statement is KEY to coping with life:  we all have ups and downs, we can get through them, and you are not alone.

Kristin Neff, who is featured in the article and known as a pioneer in the field of self-compassion warns that “the biggest reason people are not more self-compassionate is because they worry about becoming self-indulgent.”  This is interesting: there is perceived to be quite a fine line between offering ourselves kindness and being seen as someone who indulges themselves so much that they care more about their own needs than others.  These two poles seem pretty different to me but for those of us who are sensitive and perceptive, it can be a battle to determine what defines self-compassion and what defines self-indulgence.  Some self-indulgence is okay, even healthy, but when is it too much?  I think that our culture influences us to indulge ourselves to excess and this in turn can ignite our fears of falling too deeply into this trap.

A further point by Neff:  “I think that self-criticism keeps people in line”.  So, therein lies the complexity of this question.  Self-criticism is believed to help keep us from going overboard into the land of excessive self-indulgence.  However, self-criticism is the antithesis to self-compassion, and so an effort to limit indulgence can in fact cause us to become very critical of and hard on ourselves.  With all of this teeter-tottering between compassion, indulgence, and criticism, no wonder our society is riddled with anxiety about achieving perfectionism!

Cultivating self-compassion instead of choosing self-criticism is difficult, however it can lead to longterm happiness and can help alleviate emotional issues.  Neff cites an example of women who struggle with emotional eating.  If a group of women really want to have some doughnuts, but criticize themselves for perhaps having eaten some a few days ago or for even wanting to eat the doughnuts, then the stress of this self-criticism will project them into a uncontrolled episode of emotional eating.  However, if these women treat themselves with self-compassion and give themselves permission to have some doughnuts because they taste delicious and they really want some, then they will not over-eat.  Compassion breeds happiness and peace, while criticism breeds depression and self-hatred.

Where are you on the scale of self-compassion?  If you are high, then that is wonderful!  If you are lower than you would like to be, I encourage you to write yourself a “letter of support”, as you would for a friend trying to get a new job.  Cite all of the wonderful things about you and why you deserve to be treated (by yourself) as a kind, intelligent, beautiful human being.  Then read this letter out loud to yourself — you will be amazed at how empowering it feels!