For years, Garrison Keillor would introduce his fictitious town, “Lake Wobegon” as a place “where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking and all the children are above average”. Self-esteem has long been regarded as the key to personal well being and happiness. The problem? Self esteem is inherently unstable because it is based on social comparisons and fleeting accomplishments.
Ever get one of those obnoxious Christmas letters describing how Johnny just became a Rhodes Scholar, Elizabeth, a semi-finalist in the National Spelling Bee, achieved a 4.0 GPA at Notre Dame and Tim was the star running back for four consecutive undefeated seasons? Have you secretly wished that the braggarts would fess up or be “right sized by Karma“? The alternative letter might be that Johnny has been in and out of rehab all year because of his heroin addiction, Elizabeth had two abortions and Tim missed his opportunity to attend Notre Dame due to a shoplifting conviction. Call me old-fashioned, but I often would get the same yucky “I am less than” feeling in my gut in response to the “not-so-humblebrags” on my rare forays onto Facebook.
The antidote? Self-compassion. Compassion is the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates us to help. It is essential to our humanity. Think of the bystander, upon seeing a toddler pinned under a car, is suddenly imbued with superhuman strength to lift the car and save the child. Instead of survival of the fittest, it is survival of the kindest. Self-compassion is no different, except that the recipient is oneself. Instead of reacting to our mistakes, imperfections and disappointments by castigating ourselves, it involves giving ourselves the kindness, understanding and compassion that we would instinctively give a loved one who was in distress. While pain is an inevitable part of life, suffering is characterized by pain and resistance to pain.
As a psychologist, my innate compassion for others had always served me well. But, I struggled to practice what I preached. Before learning about self-compassion, I had never considered that my relentless self-blame, guilt and criticism could or would ever change. I shared a common belief that self-criticism is an effective motivator, but overlooked that it often comes at a price – depression, anxiety and a fear of being worthless.
For years, I worked in a rehab for men with drug and alcohol addictions who were sent directly from jail or were court ordered for treatment. The vast majority were not bad people, They were survivors of unimaginable trauma. With their bold tattoos and gruff behavior, they appeared tough, even menacing. In my office, they spoke of horrific experiences of abuse and neglect, often for the first time in their lives. I would explain how trauma becomes “frozen” in the brain and when triggered, is experienced just as intensely as when it first happened. How at first, drugs and alcohol, seem like the perfect solution. Until they aren’t, because the consequences outweigh the benefits. Sometimes, all that I could do was listen and bear witness to their pain. In a strange way, it felt like an honor. I tried to give them hope. Some of them got better.
Years ago when I was in training, it was considered taboo for therapists to disclose any personal information. Maintaining a “tabula rasa” (blank slate) was considered to be essential to the curative process of “transference” whereby the patient projects their issues onto the therapist who then interprets them. In contrast, self-compassion encourages self-disclosure by the therapist because it underscores our common humanity as imperfect beings and helps to ” level the playing field”.
In the self-compassion group that l led, I shared the time that I tripped and fell while running. I was holding my phone with my left hand so I could check out my progress on my running “app”. My entire weight fell on my right hand and I smashed my pinky finger. It was the worst type of finger injury, dubbed “Humpty Dumpty” by my hand surgeon. He informed me that it would never be the same again, despite painful surgery and months of occupational therapy.
Old me: “This is all my fault. I should have been paying more attention. It was so stupid of me to be holding the phone. ” (This would be triggered whenever I was in a lot of pain which was most of the time for months).
New me: “This is painful and upsetting so I need to practice self-compassion. Lesson learned. I will always keep both hands free when running and pay more attention to where I am going. It could have been much worse so I am grateful that it was only my finger.”
My self-disclosure underscored our common humanity as imperfect beings and helped “level the playing field”. They shared their own inner put downs, “loser”, f#&kup”, “hopeless”, “piece of sh*t”, “never going to amount to anything”. One man in the group asked, “How am I supposed to get over witnessing my mother being stabbed to death when I was a child?” The answer: “You aren’t. This is about acknowledging the pain and giving yourself the kindness and compassion you need because it is so painful.”
When I make mistakes now, I try to stop being “hijacked” by my emotions. Are these efforts always successful? Of course not. But if I remember that the goal is progress, not perfection, I am better equipped to look at my mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than to beat myself up. And the more that I heal myself, the better equipped I am to help others.