We all want to be the best versions of ourselves, but there always seems to be something getting in the way. Why do we keep making the same mistakes? Why does our suffering seem to last so much longer than it should? It’s strange to say, but our most significant obstacle to improving ourselves is not our circumstances or even the people around us. It’s how we treat ourselves when we fail, or even when we experience any kind of suffering.
But that’s okay! That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, and treating yourself like you are one is what needs to change. For many of us, that’s our first instinct when we fail: putting ourselves down—insulting ourselves. Telling ourselves we should have done better. Many of us don’t find self-criticism this harsh to be particularly useful but have developed a habit of beating ourselves up anyway. The reason is that society, culture, and institutions have indoctrinated us to treat self-criticism in this high regard; but in reality, it only gets in the way of our ability to improve our lives and make the world around us a better place.
Self-compassion is the better, gentler path to improving ourselves and the world around us. But when we hear it, we tend to associate it with self-pity, weakness, complacency, or selfishness. The truth is that self-compassion is the antidote to these, but the mythology surrounding self-compassion prevents us from realizing it. Here are four of the most prominent myths surrounding self-compassion and why they’re not true.
1. Self-compassion is a form of self-pity
Self-compassion may seem like another word for self-pity, but the two states of mind are actually opposites. When we engage in self-pity, we hone in on our experience and become the center of our attention, which leads us to neglect the experiences of others around us. We think, “Why is my life so unfair? Why did things turn out the way they did? Why am I the only one who’s suffering like this?” This mindset makes us feel alone in our trials, like no one else understands what we’re going through.
But when we make an effort to treat ourselves with compassion when we suffer, we naturally begin to consider the suffering of others around us. Our internal monologue changes to, “You know what? There are other people just like me who are also suffering. There are even others experiencing the same pain I am, or worse. I’m not alone in this struggle.” This realization takes us out of our heads and helps us feel connected to others around us. Once we can view our pain from an objective distance, we can begin to heal.
2. Self-compassion is a form of weakness
Throughout our lives, we’re taught to treat public displays of emotion as embarrassing or weak. This leads us to suppress our pain, thinking that a “tough-guy” attitude is what’s going to help us move past it. Thankfully, public expression of inner suffering is becoming more and more socially acceptable. But before we can express our suffering openly and honestly to others, we must first acknowledge it internally.
Unfortunately, when the time comes for us to process our suffering, the intuitive solution for many of us is to keep the root causes of our pain hidden in hopes that we will eventually forget what happened. Why deal with painful events and emotions when we can just keep them locked away? But the pain does inevitably resurface, as does our impulse to tamp it down with self-criticism. “Don’t be weak,” we tell ourselves, thinking it will help us move forward. But the truth is that our relentless self-criticism only prolongs our suffering by ingraining it more deeply within us.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, requires that we treat ourselves with kindness and acceptance when we make mistakes. It’s a much more effective way of coping with pain than getting angry with ourselves, which does little to relieve our suffering. As we noted above, practicing self-compassion makes us feel more connected to others and more capable of persevering through pain as a result. Not feeling like you’re going at it alone makes all the difference and is one of the defining reasons why self-compassion is such a profound source of resilience and inner strength.
3. Self-compassion will make me complacent
Reflecting on our past actions is an essential part of personal growth, but treating ourselves harshly in this process can slow or even halt self-improvement. Try this: The next time you make a mistake, listen to your inner monologue. Are you being hard on yourself? Note what the experience feels like. It often hurts more than the failure itself! The more we kick ourselves when we’re down, the more we’ll fear the act of failing because of what we know will follow: a hurtful attack on ourselves. This makes reflecting on our weaknesses much more difficult than it needs to be, which in turn makes us far less likely to work to strengthen them.
Self-compassion follows a different path. When we treat ourselves lovingly in the self-reflection process, rather than simply labeling and insulting ourselves, our fear of failure begins to dissolve. When this happens, learning from our failures transforms into a humbling and empowering process, rather than something to fear. Once we’ve established this mindset we can take a more honest look at our weaknesses, address them at their roots, and begin to improve upon them. Far from being a form of complacency, self-compassion may just be the single greatest tool for self-improvement available to us.
4. Self-compassion is selfish
We tend to place enormous value on acts of selflessness and think poorly about taking time to attend to ourselves. Society generally treats this as a noble sacrifice, but something happens when we begin to neglect our own emotional well-being in this way. We find we have less compassion to extend to others, that our emotional reservoirs run dry. The more we lean into this burnout, the more stressed, anxious, and depressed we’re liable to become. Even then, we tend to beat ourselves up for “not doing enough.” But this reduces our ability to serve others even further. It may be hard to notice at first, but if we investigate our feelings during moments of self-criticism we will find that being unkind to ourselves is just as emotionally draining, if not more so. It creates a poor foundation for us to extend compassion to others.
Self-compassion is the antidote. By taking the time to treat ourselves with kindness and love when we feel burnt out, we’re refueling our emotional reservoirs. Then, we can go back out into the world and continue to serve others as the best versions of ourselves. Plus, as we mentioned, among the first things that happen when we choose to practice self-compassion is that we begin to consider the pain of others around us and feel connected to them in their suffering. If we can do that, we can be more useful to them when the time comes to reach out and show them the same compassion we’re used to showing ourselves.
Feeding Ourselves With Grace
At Oats Overnight, we invite you to come to the table just as you are with your own vision for who you’d like to become. We’re on the same journey, seeking to live mindfully and self-compassionately because we believe that’s the foundation for personal growth. We invite you to join our community of support, and we’d love to fuel your daily goals through a premium breakfast.
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