Are you hard on yourself? Me too.

I was a terribly sensitive child (oh, how I have come to hate the word ‘sensitive’!) right from the get-go, seemingly doomed to a life consumed with self-hatred and setting unrelenting, unattainable standards for myself.

My parents parenting skills were not lacking, it’s just that their comforting methods of hugging me when I made a mistake and was upset did nothing to combat the perfectionistic critic in my head. Instead of assuring me, “it will all be okay” (which in most of my circumstances was absolutely true), would it have been more helpful to have taught me to be more compassionate towards myself? The research is backing up the latter method.

What is self-compassion?

“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” –Dr. Kristin Neff

While the holidays can be lovely, they are also a time where self-compassion gets a good workout. How many times have you had thoughts like, “I should have got a different present for Suzy, I’m such an idiot”, or, “I ate all that chocolate, I have no self-control”, leading to a flurry of potentially harmful emotions like irritation and disgust.

I’m in a good relationship with food right now but after having some exceptional eating days over the holiday, it was nearly impossible to feel good about my body. I got through it, not by compensating for my so-called “gluttony” the next few days, but by words of Dr. Neff reminding me to “honor and accept your humanness”. How many people reading this have felt this way? Why am I “gluttonous” and the rest of you are just being human, enjoying some homemade, delicious food?

How to be self-compassionate

Good news: you can learn self-compassion at any age. Granted, it’s easier if taught at an early age so that all of those negative thinking pathways are not built in your brain, but it’s certainly possible to challenge these pessimistic thoughts and rebuild new neural pathways to come to a place of kindness.

If you check out this website, http://self-compassion.org/ Dr. Neff invites you to try self-compassion exercises. These are a few of my favourites.

How would you treat a friend?

Think, “If this was my best friend, what would I say to him?” Going back to the example of indulging on holiday treat food: I think when your friend then says he is swearing off cookies forever, you might be a little more reasonable, offering him advice of eating in moderation, and again, that being human means making some mistakes, and didn’t he enjoy himself at the party? I find this exercise particularly supportive when I am name-calling myself.

Self-compassion journal

This is a great practice for those who enjoy expressing themselves through writing. Dr. Neff emphasizes three components in this journal: being mindful of painful emotions, relating to common humanity, and writing words of comfort and kindness. The easy part is expressing the painful emotions. It was substantially harder for me to comfort myself. One thing that worked for me was to pretend I was comforting a small child; what I would want them to know after learning about the benefits of practicing self-compassion.

Guided meditations

I assumed that meditation was about sitting still and thinking about nothing, and since both of those are nearly impossible for me, I thought this was never going to work. But since they’re free downloads and I am curious (and determined), I decided to try them out. A recommendation: try one when you are not feeling crazy emotional to see what it’s like. Later you may be able to work through these high emotions. I did one meditation where I couldn’t focus and was frustrated with myself (I know, the irony!) for not even being able to do a “stupid meditation”. I’m learning that these meditations are actually not about sitting still and thinking of nothing, and that noticing my emotions while being able to put a word on it without getting attached or stuck in it is actually really helpful in moments of distress.

Finally…

I urge you that if you are going to make any new year’s resolutions, let it be being kinder to yourself. Typically, in my opinion, new years’ resolutions tend to be a form of self-punishment wrapped in a pretty box of what you think you should do. Take the advice from Dr. Neff, “Why not try treating yourself like a good friend and see what happens?”

About the Author

Tara Richardson is a Peer Support Specialist at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby, Ontario. Her own personal journey through mental illness has led her to be a passionate and dedicated advocate for mental health recovery. Tara is an aspiring author who is in the (long) process of writing and editing her memoir compiled from journal entries beginning at age 11. Tara has a B.A. in Psychology, a diploma in Social Service Work, and a certificate in Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Tara can be contacted at: tara_richardson913@hotmail.com Non-creepy fan mail gladly welcomed.