Self-compassion: the key to staying positive

It just so happens I have been thinking about self-compassion lately.

Author Kristin Neff says self-compassion is ‘‘the proven power of being kind to yourself’’.

According to Neff, we live in a competitive culture where we constantly compare ourselves to others. Sometimes, in order to feel good about ourselves, we put others down or look for their flaws. Other times we pretend to be better than we really are.

Caught up in a cycle of evaluating and judging, we regularly beat ourselves up for not making the grade. This negatively affects how we see ourselves and sometimes can lead to depression. Neff suggests we will not grow to our potential until we break free from this cycle, and self-compassion is the key.

Here is a simple example of how her ideas work. Suppose one night you put the potatoes on to cook. You go away and do something else while they boil. Except you get distracted and 20 minutes later the acrid aroma of burnt-dry potatoes wafts through the house. What do you say to yourself?

‘‘Oh you stupid idiot. How could you be so forgetful? You just ruined dinner. You had one job.’’

If you were practising Neff’s ideas you would pause and evaluate how you are feeling. Then you would show yourself compassion and remember that making mistakes is part of being human. If you were being super supportive of yourself you might even give yourself a little pat on the hand or a hug.

In the case of the potatoes I think I would feel angry and disappointed, so the inner conversation I would have could develop something like this.

‘‘I feel angry and disappointed I let the potatoes burn. In fact, I feel like kicking something, I am so mad. To be fair, it’s understandable why I am feeling that. Fortunately it’s not the end of the world. I am still a wonderful person, even if I have goofed. Lots of people let potatoes boil dry.’’

Now this may sound a bit Alice in Wonderland-ish, but crazily enough it seems to work. Not just when you burn stewed apples, like I have done a couple of times lately, but in many different situations — including in our relationships.

It is a matter of pausing, becoming aware of our feelings, and then being kind to ourselves. Then keep doing it until treating ourselves kindly becomes a habit.