A few years back I was standing by the stove making dinner. I remember it clearly, making meat sauce, the spaghetti boiling. I was flustered and trying to do to many things at the same time. I was trying to talk to my son (think he was 5 or 6 at the time) about what he had to do to get ready for the next day. He was not cooperating at all. We were arguing and I remember that I tried to calm down and so I did hunch down to try to have my face next to his. He was really upset now and did not know what to do with himself so he just grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled it. It hurt...bad! And as a quick reflex I grabbed what little hair he had on his head and pulled. He looked at me in shock. There was silence for a second or two. He stared me straight in my eyes. As if he could not believe what I had just done. Then he screamed as loud as his lungs would allow. He ran into his room and screamed and screamed and I am sure he yelled out something about me being the worst mom ever.
I was standing there. Not believing that I had just pulled his hair. And I felt shame, that I had physically hurt my son. And he was really adding to the fire of shame within me by screaming bloody murder. Like he was badly hurt. The critical self talk was going on in full speed in my head.
I felt a warm hand on my shoulder. My mom was visiting and she just said to me: "Monica, whatever you do, do not beat yourself up about this. You are human. He was behaving really badly and you did not have it in you to respond the way you wanted. Too many things were going on for you at once. Go in and apologize when he has calmed down and then let it go." It felt like such a relief. I was so thankful to her. She was the voice that sort of could calm down my own critical voice. She was the voice that brought the self-compassion that I could not access myself at that time.
That critical self talk is one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to self-compassion. As a matter of fact, when I coach my one on one clients the first session we name it/him/her/them. Gremlins, drunken monkeys, saboteur, Bob, Cruella...anything that works. To sort of make it its own entity, so that we can become more conscious of it instead of being totally beaten down by it.
You see, self-criticism is often times a cover for the desire for control. It is an effort to fit ourselves in to some sort of perfect ideal that we cannot meet anyway. By beating ourselves up we are trying to fit into this perfect ideal that does not even exist.
This is when self-compassion comes in. We do fail and we do wrong and we do not live up to the ideal we would like to be. Self-compassion does not take away the pain or the negative experiences we have however it does make sure we look at them with kindness so that they can be transformed. Many of us are trying to avoid pain, by somehow controlling it, however pain is just as essential to leading a wholehearted life as happiness. If we try to numb our pain, we are also numbing our ability to feel pure happiness.
One HUGE piece of self-compassion is to realize that what we are going through right now (as awful, painful, hurtful and hard it may be) there are others that are and have gone through this as well. This is not something that is distinctive to us personally. This is part of the human experience. We are all in this together.
With greater self-compassion we are more gentle with ourselves. Because judging ourselves, feeling ashamed and trying to be "perfect" is stressful. So when we are honest and accepting ourselves for who are and with the lense of self-compassion we do not have to hide our imperfections anymore. And with less to hide, we really have less to be afraid of. Sounds good, doesn't it?
In her book, Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff writes about what we can do to cultivate more self-compassion in our lives:
Changing our negative self-talk (yep, we need to be conscious about it in order to be able to change it)
Exploring self-compassion though writing
Self-compassion journal - a way to process difficult events through the lense of self-compassion
Exercises - such as role play where we ourselves switch between the 3 different seats of the criticizer, the criticized and the compassionate observer