Why you should go easier on yourself

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Most of us know it’s a good idea to show compassion to others but how often do we consider showing ourselves some simple self-compassion? 

Writers are prone to self-criticism. We tend to embrace directives such as, “Our children can achieve great things when we set high expectations for them.” (Jeb Bush said that). And, “When you are tough on yourself, life is going to be infinitely easier on you.” (Zig Ziglar was responsible for that.) And, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” (Norman Vincent Peale came up with that.)

But did it ever occur to you that this hard-driving attitude might actually be holding you back? I know this seems counterintuitive: Don’t we need high expectations to achieve great things? But the downside of high expectations is that they often end up deflating us. We are so far from the accomplishment we want to achieve (say, a book or even a challenging article or report) that we stop working or procrastinate because it seems too difficult. 

You might be interested to know that “self-compassion” has become a fruitful new area of study in psychology. One of the leading proponents of this concept is researcher Kristin Neff,  an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin.  During her last year of graduate school she became interested in Buddhism, and while doing her post-doctoral work she decided to conduct research on self-compassion.

Among other findings, her studies have demonstrated that self-compassionate students are more likely to respond to disappointing performances by trying to make the best of such situations, rather than looking for ways to distract themselves.

And in a 2014 study  she found that some brief self-compassion training helped students learn how to avoid self-critical thoughts.

Here are eight strategies Neff suggests that you can use to go easier on yourself, and ultimately become more productive.

1-Ask yourself how you would treat a friend in a similar situation? Most of us treat friends with far more respect and compassion than we use on ourselves. So, flip the tables. Imagine that your problem (say, procrastinating on a writing assignment) was something a good friend was doing. What would you say to him or her? How (kindly) would you phrase the thought? Do yourself the same honour of talking that way to yourself.

2-Take a self-compassion break. In meditation, this is known as “loving-kindness.” Repeat these phrases to yourself:

  • May I be free from mental and physical suffering.
  • May I be peaceful and happy with things as they are.
  • May I be healthy and strong.
  • May I look after myself happily in this world.

If you’re feeling strong, then repeat these phrases again, wishing these same thoughts for people you love. And if you’re feeling really strong, repeat them for people you dislike or are in conflict with. (Honestly, this does become easier with practice! And science is starting to show that it works.)

3-Explore self-compassion through writing. One of the most effective ways to do this, according to Neff, is to think about an imaginary friend, “who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate and who can see all your strengths and our weaknesses.” Then write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, addressing your perceived short-comings from a perspective of unlimited compassion.

4-Get in touch with conflicting parts of yourself. Neff conceptualizes all of us as having at least three inner “personalities”: the criticizer, the criticized and the compassionate observer. Her view is somewhat similar to Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, but instead of putting on different coloured hats, she suggests sitting in three different chairs, arranged in a triangular fashion. Allow the self-critic to speak first, and describe your writing inadequacies, aloud. Switch chairs and have the criticized person speak next, articulating how these criticisms make you feel and how they affect your performance. Finally, take the chair of the compassionate observer and address both the critic and the criticized. This should give you new ways of thinking about how to be kinder to yourself in the future.

5-Change your critical self-talk. Recognize your critical inner voice and respond to it with compassion rather than simply ignoring it. Neff suggests saying something like: “I know you’re worried about me and feel unsafe, but you are causing me unnecessary pain. Could you let my inner compassionate self say a few words now?”

6-Keep a self-compassion journal. Many writers keep journals (I keep a reading journal of every book I’ve read and also a one-sentence journal about what’s happened and how I felt each day) but a self-compassion journal is much more specific. The aim is not just to write down what happened or even your feelings about it — the objective is to connect your feelings to the wider human experience. Your journal should help you explore how other people feel the same way, and allow you to practice self-kindness and comfort. See a thorough explanation on Neff’s website.

7-Identify what you really want. By clearly identifying your goals (say, finishing an article by the end of the day or writing 500 words for your book) and then examining the kindest, most positive way to motivate yourself, over time you can change your behavior so that it becomes more compassionate.

8-Learn how to nurture yourself. Be sure to give yourself plenty of breaks and “fun” stuff (such as walks, movies, listening to music, reading books). When you temporarily don’t have the time for such activities, have some helpful expressions you can say to yourself, such as “I know this is hard right now, and it’s only natural you’re feeling so stressed. I’m here for you.” Neff also recommends stroking your own hands or cupping your own face with your hands. Just don’t let anyone see you do this, she advises!

Self-compassion does not mean you’re “soft” or unaccomplished. Nor is it self-pity, self-indulgence or self-esteem. Instead, it’s a series of practices that will help you become more productive. And, even more important, it will help you become healthier and happier.

(The photo at the top of this column shows a statue of The Goddess of Compassion at Funaoka Park in Japan.)

How does self-compassion help your writing?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by Sept. 30/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Floating Off The Page, edited by Ken Wells. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.