The high cost of beating yourself up habitually

Are you your own biggest critic? Do you always berate yourself for your weaknesses? Beating yourself up is a terrible habit that does immense harm to you

Man frustrated covering his face

"This kind of compulsive concern with 'I, me, and mine' isn’t the same as loving ourselves… Loving ourselves points us to capacities of resilience, compassion, and understanding within that are simply part of being alive."
—Sharon Salzberg, The Force of Kindness

In this incredibly competitive society of ours, how many of us truly feel good about ourselves? It seems such a fleeting thing—feeling good—especially as we need to feel special and above average to feel worthy. Anything less seems like a failure. I remember once as a freshman in college, after spending hours getting ready for a big party, I complained to my boyfriend that my hair, makeup, and outfit were woefully inadequate. He tried to reassure me by saying, “Don’t worry, you look fine.”

Fine? Oh great, I always wanted to look fine...”

The desire to feel special is understandable. The problem is that, by definition, it’s impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time. Although there are some ways in which we excel, there is always someone smarter, prettier, more successful. How do we cope with this? Not very well. To see ourselves positively, we tend to inflate our own egos and put others down so that we can feel good in comparison. But this strategy comes at a price—it holds us back from reaching our full potential in life.

Distorting mirrors

If I have to feel better than you to feel good about myself, then how clearly am I really going to see you, or myself for that matter? Let’s say I had a stressful day at work and am grumpy and irritable with my husband when he gets home later that evening [purely hypothetical, of course]. If I’m highly invested in having a positive self-image and don’t want to risk viewing myself in a negative light, I’m going to slant my interpretation of what transpires to make sure that any friction between us is seen as my husband’s fault, not my own.

“Good, you’re home. Did you pick up the groceries?”

“I just walked though the door, how about ‘Nice to see you, dear, how was your day?’ ”

“Well, if you weren’t so forgetful, maybe I wouldn’t have to always hound you.”

“As a matter of fact, I did pick up the groceries.”

“Oh . . . Well, um . . . It’s the exception that proves the rule. I wish you weren’t so unreliable.”

Not exactly a recipe for happiness.

Why is it so hard to admit when we step out of line, are rude, or act impatient? Because our ego feels so much better when we project our flaws and shortcomings on to someone else. It’s your fault, not mine. Just think about all the arguments and fights that grow out of this simple dynamic. Each person blames the other for saying or doing something wrong, justifying their own actions as if their life depended on it, while both know, in their heart of hearts, that it takes two to tango. How much time do we waste like this? Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could just confess and play fair?

But change is easier said than done. It’s almost impossible to notice those aspects of ourselves that cause problems relating to others, or that keep us from reaching our full potential, if we can’t see ourselves clearly. How can we grow if we don’t acknowledge our own weaknesses? We might temporarily feel better about ourselves by ignoring our flaws, or by believing our issues and difficulties are somebody else’s fault, but in the long run we only harm ourselves by getting stuck in endless cycles of stagnation and conflict.

If I have to feel better than you to feel good about myself, then how clearly am I really going to see you, or myself for that matter?

The costs of self-judgement

Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. And right after the crash comes a pendulum swing to despair as we realise that, however much we’d like to, we can’t always blame our problems on someone else. We can’t always feel special and above average. The result is often devastating. We look in the mirror and don’t like what we see [both literally and figuratively], and the shame starts to set in. Most of us are incredibly hard on ourselves when we finally admit some flaw or shortcoming. I’m not good enough. I’m worthless. It’s not surprising that we hide the truth from ourselves when honesty is met with such harsh condemnation.

In areas where it is hard to fool ourselves—when comparing our weight to those of magazine models, for instance, or our bank accounts to those of the rich and successful—we cause ourselves incredible amounts of emotional pain. We lose faith in ourselves, start doubting our potential, and become hopeless. Of course, this sorry state just yields more self-condemnation for being such a do-nothing loser, and down, down we go. Even if we do manage to get our act together, the goalposts for what counts as “good enough” always seem to remain frustratingly out of reach. We must be smart and fit and fashionable and interesting and successful and sexy. Oh, and spiritual, too. And no matter how well we do, someone else always seems to be doing it better. The result of this line of thinking is sobering: millions of people need to take pharmaceuticals every day just to cope with daily life. Insecurity, anxiety, and depression are incredibly common in our society, and much of this is due to self-judgements and beating ourselves up when we feel we aren’t winning in the game of life.

Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash

Another way

So what’s the answer? To stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. To stop trying to label ourselves as “good” or “bad” and simply accept ourselves with an open heart. To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend, or even a stranger for that matter. Sadly, however, there’s almost no one whom we treat as badly as ourselves.

When I first came across the idea of self-compassion, it changed my life almost immediately. It was during my last year in the Human Development doctoral programme at the University of California at Berkeley, as I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation. I was going through a really difficult time following the breakup of my first marriage, and I was full of shame and self-loathing. I thought signing up for meditation classes at a local Buddhist centre might help. I had been interested in Eastern spirituality from the time I was a small child, having been raised by an open-minded mother just outside of Los Angeles. But I had never taken meditation seriously. I had also never examined Buddhist philosophy, as my exposure to Eastern thought had been more along California New Age lines. As part of my exploration, I read Sharon Salzberg’s classic book Lovingkindness and was never the same again.

I had known that Buddhists talk a lot about the importance of compassion, but I had never considered that having compassion for yourself might be as important as having compassion for others. From the Buddhist point of view, you have to care about yourself before you can really care about other people. If you are continually judging and criticising yourself while trying to be kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation. This is the opposite of oneness, interconnection, and universal love—the ultimate goal of most spiritual paths, no matter which tradition.

I remember talking to my new fiancé, Rupert, who joined me for the weekly Buddhist group meetings, and shaking my head in amazement. “You mean you’re actually allowed to be nice to yourself, to have compassion for yourself when you mess up or are going through a really hard time? I don’t know... If I’m too self-compassionate, won’t I just be lazy and selfish?”

It took me a while to get my head around it. But I slowly came to realise that self-criticism, despite being socially sanctioned, was not at all helpful, and in fact only made things worse.

I wasn’t making myself a better person by beating myself up all the time. Instead, I was causing myself to feel inadequate and insecure, then taking out my frustration on the people closest to me. More than that, I wasn’t owning up to many things because I was so afraid of the self-hate that would follow if I admitted the truth.

What Rupert and I both came to learn was that instead of relying on our relationship to meet all our needs for love, acceptance, and security, we could actually provide some of these feelings for ourselves. And this would mean that we had even more in our hearts to give to each other. We were both so moved by the concept of self-compassion that in our marriage ceremony later that year, each of us ended our vows by saying “Most of all, I promise to help you have compassion for yourself, so that you can thrive and be happy.”

From the Buddhist point of view, you have to care about yourself before you can really care about other people

After getting my PhD, I did two years of postdoctoral training with a leading self-esteem researcher. I wanted to know more about how people determine their sense of self-worth. I quickly learned that the field of psychology was falling out of love with self-esteem as the ultimate marker of positive mental health. Although thousands of articles had been written on the importance of self-esteem, researchers were now starting to point out all the traps that people can fall into when they try to get and keep a sense of high self-esteem: narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous anger, prejudice, discrimination, and so on. I realised that self-compassion was the perfect alternative to the relentless pursuit of self-esteem. Why? Because it offers the same protection against harsh self-criticism as self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others. In other words, self-compassion provides the same benefits as high self-esteem without its drawbacks.

When I got a job as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, I decided that as soon as I got settled I would conduct research on self-compassion. Although no one had yet defined self-compassion from an academic perspective—let alone done any research on it—I knew that this would be my life’s work.

So what is self-compassion? What does it mean exactly? I usually find that the best way to describe self-compassion is to start with a more familiar experience—compassion for others. After all, compassion is the same whether we direct it to ourselves or to other people.

Compassion for others

Woman stuck in the traffic covering her face
Does the suffering of another move you or does it harden your heart?

Imagine you’re stuck in traffic on the way to work, and a homeless man tries to get you to pay him a buck for washing your car windows. “He’s so pushy!” you think to yourself, “He’ll make me miss the flight and be late. He probably just wants the money for booze or drugs anyway. Maybe if I ignore him, he’ll just leave me alone.” But he doesn’t ignore you, and you sit there hating him while he washes your window, feeling guilty if you don’t toss him some money and resentful if you do. Then one day, you’re struck as if by lightning. There you are in the same commuter traffic, at the same light, at the same time, and there’s the homeless man, with his bucket and squeegee as usual. Yet for some unknown reason, today you see him differently. You see him as a person rather than just a mere annoyance. You notice his suffering. How does he survive? Most people just shoo him away. He’s out here in the traffic and fumes all day and certainly isn’t earning much. At least he’s trying to offer something in return for the cash. It must be really tough to have people be so irritated with you all the time. I wonder what his story is? How did he end up on the streets? The moment you see the man as an actual human being who is suffering, your heart connects with him. Instead of ignoring him, you find—to your amazement—that you’re taking a moment to think about how difficult his life is. You are moved by his pain and feel the urge to help him in some way. Importantly, if what you feel is true compassion rather than mere pity, you say to yourself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I. If I’d been born in different circumstances, or maybe had just been unlucky, I might also be struggling to survive like that. We’re all vulnerable.”

Of course, that might be the moment when you harden your heart completely—your own fear of ending up on the street causing you to dehumanise this horrid heap of rags and beard. Many people do. But it doesn’t make them happy; it doesn’t help them deal with the stresses of their work, their spouse, or their child when they get home. It doesn’t help them face their own fears. If anything, this hardening of the heart, which involves feeling better than the homeless man, just makes the whole thing a little bit worse.

But let’s say you don’t close up. Let’s say you really do experience compassion for the homeless man’s misfortune. How does it feel? Actually, it feels pretty good. It’s wonderful when your heart opens—you immediately feel more connected, alive, present.

Compassion is the same whether we direct it to ourselves or to other people

Now, let’s say the man wasn’t trying to wash windows in return for some cash. Maybe he was just begging for money to buy alcohol or drugs—should you still feel compassion for him? Yes. You don’t have to invite him home. You don’t even have to give him a buck. You may decide to give him a kind smile or a sandwich rather than money if you feel that’s the more responsible thing to do. But yes, he is still worthy of compassion—all of us are.

Compassion is not only relevant to those who are blameless victims, but also to those whose suffering stems from failures, personal weakness, or bad decisions—you know, the kind you and I make every day. Compassion, then, involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering. It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help—to ameliorate suffering—emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognising our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.

Compassion for ourselves

Woman hugging herself
When we love and accept ourselves wholeheartedly, we avoid destructive patterns of negativity

Self-compassion, by definition, involves the same qualities. First, it requires that we stop to recognise our own suffering. We can’t be moved by our own pain if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Of course, sometimes the fact that we’re in pain is blindingly obvious and we can think of nothing else. More often than you might think, however, we don’t recognise when we are suffering. Much of western culture has a strong “stiff-upper-lip” tradition. We are taught that we shouldn’t complain, that we should just carry on [to be read in a clipped British accent while giving a smart salute]. If we’re in a difficult or stressful situation, we rarely take the time to step back and recognise how hard it is for us in the moment.

And when our pain comes from self-judgement—if you’re angry at yourself for mistreating someone, or for making some stupid remark at a party—it’s even harder to see these as moments of suffering. Like the time I asked a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, eyeing the bump of her belly, “Are we expecting?” “Er, no,” she answered, “I’ve just put on some weight lately.” “Oh . . .” I said as my face turned beet red. We typically don’t recognise such moments as a type of pain that is worthy of a compassionate response. After all, I messed up, doesn’t that mean I should be punished? Well, do you punish your friends or your family when they mess up? Okay, maybe sometimes a little, but do you feel good about it?

Compassion involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help emerges

Everybody makes mistakes at one time or another, it’s a fact of life. And if you think about it, why should you expect anything different? Where is that written contract you signed before birth promising that you’d be perfect, that you’d never fail, and that your life would go absolutely the way you want it to? Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the “everything will go swimmingly until the day I die” plan. Can I speak to the management, please? It’s absurd, and yet most of us act as if something has gone terribly awry when we fall down or life takes an unwanted or unexpected turn.

One of the downsides of living in a culture that stresses the ethic of independence and individual achievement is that if we don’t continually reach our ideal goals, we feel that we only have ourselves to blame. And if we’re at fault, that means we don’t deserve compassion, right? The truth is, everyone is worthy of compassion. The very fact that we are conscious human beings experiencing life on the planet means that we are intrinsically valuable and deserving of care. According to the Dalai Lama, “Human beings by nature want happiness and do not want suffering. With that feeling everyone tries to achieve happiness and tries to get rid of suffering, and everyone has the basic right to do this... Basically, from the viewpoint of real human value we are all the same.”

We don’t have to earn the right to compassion; it is our birthright. We are human, and our ability to think and feel, combined with our desire to be happy rather than to suffer, warrants compassion for its own sake. Many people are resistant to the idea of self-compassion, however. Isn’t it really just a form of self-pity? Or a dressed-up word for self-indulgence? These assumptions are false and run directly counter to the actual meaning of self-compassion. Self-compassion involves wanting health and wellbeing for oneself and leads to proactive behaviour to better one’s situation, rather than passivity. And self-compassion doesn’t mean that I think my problems are more important than yours—it just means I think that my problems are also important and worthy of being attended to. Rather than condemning yourself for your mistakes and failures, therefore, you can use the experience of suffering to soften your heart. You can let go of those unrealistic expectations of perfection that make you so dissatisfied, and open the door to real and lasting satisfaction. All by giving yourself the compassion you need in the moment.

Most of us act as if something has gone terribly awry when we fall down or life takes an unwanted or unexpected turn

The research that my colleagues and I have conducted over the past decade shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional wellbeing and contentment in our lives. By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, difficult as it is, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. At the same time, self-compassion fosters positive mind-states such as happiness and optimism. The nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish, to appreciate the beauty and richness of life, even in hard times. When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy.

Man relaxing from his work
Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgement

Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgement, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” Right here at our fingertips we have the means to provide ourselves with the warm, supportive care we deeply yearn for. By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive.

In many ways self-compassion is like magic, because it has the power to transform suffering into joy. In her book Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart, Tara Bennett-Goleman uses the metaphor of alchemy to symbolise the spiritual and emotional transformation that’s possible when we embrace our pain with caring concern. When we give ourselves compassion, the tight knot of negative self-judgement starts to dissolve, replaced by a feeling of peaceful, connected acceptance—a sparkling diamond that emerges from the coal.

If you feel that you lack sufficient self-compassion, check in with yourself—are you criticising yourself for this, too? If so, stop right there. Try to feel compassion for how difficult it is to be an imperfect human being in this extremely competitive society of ours. Our culture does not emphasise self-compassion, quite the opposite. We’re told that no matter how hard we try, our best just isn’t good enough. It’s time for something different. We can all benefit by learning to be more self-compassionate, and now is the perfect time to start.

In many ways self-compassion is like magic, because it has the power to transform suffering into joy

You can determine your precise level of self-compassion using the self-compassion scale I developed for my research. Go to my website—www.self-compassion.org—and click on the “How Self-Compassionate Are You?” link. After filling out a series of questions, your level of self-compassion will be calculated for you. You may want to record your score and take the test again after reading my book, to determine if you’ve increased your level of self-compassion with practice. You can’t always have high self-esteem and your life will continue to be flawed and imperfect—but self-compassion will always be there, waiting for you, a safe haven. In good times and bad, whether you’re on top of the world or at the bottom of the heap, self-compassion will keep you going, helping you move to a better place. It does take work to break the self-criticising habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax, allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself. It’s easier than you might think, and it could change your life.

Exercise: How do you react to yourself and your life?

How do you typically react to yourself?

Woman looking at the mirror and shouting to herself

  • What types of things do you typically judge and criticise yourself for—appearance, career, relationships, parenting, and so on?
  • What type of language do you use with yourself when you notice some flaw or make a mistake—do you insult yourself, or do you take a more kind and understanding tone?
  • If you are highly self-critical, how does this make you feel inside?
  • What are the consequences of being so hard on yourself? Does it make you more motivated, or does it tend to make you discouraged and depressed?
  • How do you think you would feel if you could truly accept yourself exactly as you are? Does this possibility scare you, give you hope, or both?

How do you typically react to life difficulties?

  • How do you treat yourself when you run into challenges in your life? Do you tend to ignore the fact that you’re suffering and focus exclusively on fixing the problem, or do you stop to give yourself care and comfort?
  • Do you tend to get carried away by the drama of difficult situations, so that you make a bigger deal out of them than you need to, or do you tend to keep things in balanced perspective?
  • Do you tend to feel cut off from others when things go wrong, with the irrational feeling that everyone else is having a better time than you are, or do you try to remember that all people experience hardship in their lives?

 

Exercise: Exploring self-compassion through letter writing

Part One

Everybody has something about themselves that they don’t like; something that causes them to feel shame, to feel insecure or not “good enough.” It is the human condition to be imperfect, and feelings of failure and inadequacy are part of the experience of living. Try thinking about an issue that tends to make you feel inadequate or bad about yourself [physical appearance, work or relationship issues, etc.] How does this aspect of yourself make you feel inside—scared, sad, depressed, insecure, angry? What emotions come up for you when you think about this aspect of yourself? Please try to be as emotionally honest as possible and to avoid repressing any feelings, while at the same time not being melodramatic. Try to just feel your emotions exactly as they are—no more, no less.

Part Two

Now think about an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind, and compassionate. Imagine that this friend can see all your strengths and all your weaknesses, including the aspect of yourself you have just been thinking about. Reflect upon what this friend feels toward you, and how you are loved and accepted exactly as you are, with all your very human imperfections. This friend recognises the limits of human nature and is kind and forgiving toward you. In his/her great wisdom, this friend understands your life history and the millions of things that have happened in your life to create you as you are in this moment. Your particular inadequacy is connected to so many things you didn’t necessarily choose: your genes, your family history, life circumstances—things that were outside of your control.

Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend—focussing on the perceived inadequacy you tend to judge yourself for. What would this friend say to you about your “flaw” from the perspective of unlimited compassion? How would this friend convey the deep compassion he/she feels for you, especially for the discomfort you feel when you judge yourself so harshly? What would this friend write in order to remind you that you are only human, that all people have both strengths and weaknesses? And if you think this friend would suggest possible changes you should make, how would these suggestions embody feelings of unconditional understanding and compassion? As you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of the person’s acceptance, kindness, caring, and desire for your health and happiness.

After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back and read it again, really letting the words sink in. Feel the compassion as it pours into you, soothing and comforting you like a cool breeze on a hot day. Love, connection, and acceptance are your birthright. To claim them you need only look within yourself.

Excerpted with permission from Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff; published by William Morrow


A version of this excerpt was first published in the June 2016 issue of  Complete Wellbeing.

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