3 Crucial Reasons Why Self-Compassion Is Difficult

5 min read
Source: prostooleh/Freepik

Source: prostooleh/Freepik

“Just be kind to yourself!”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself!”

“Practice self-compassion!”

We often get bombarded with messages from the wellness industry and social media that self-compassion is good for us and our well-being. There is research to back up this claim, with numerous studies showing that self-compassion is linked to positive mental health (Bluth and Neff 2018). Self-compassion can often be one of those things you know you should be doing, but when you try it, you find it’s not that easy. But why is that?

In this post, we outline three reasons self-compassion can be difficult and describe how to get around these difficulties so that you can start feeling the benefits of self-compassion.

Reason #1: You have negative associations with the idea of self-compassion

Perhaps you grew up in a household where your parents or caregivers modeled a “stiff upper lip” approach to difficult experiences or events. In that case, you may have grown up thinking that being self-compassionate somehow makes you weak or soft. Or perhaps you had the message that self-compassion was in some way selfish, and to be warm and kind to yourself was not acceptable. Maybe later in life, you concluded that self-compassion is akin to self-pity, and therefore, practising self-compassion is a way of wallowing in that self-pity. Similarly, you may have the assumption that being self-compassionate would make you self-absorbed at best and narcissistic at worst. These negative associations are common and can act as barriers to self-compassion.

Expert tip:

Reflect on your childhood and young adulthood—what kind of messages did you get about how to cope with difficult experiences, both internal, such as painful emotions, and external, like difficult or traumatic events or experiences? How did your caregivers respond when you were in distress or suffering? Did they create a safe space for you to feel, understand, and process difficult emotions? What did you observe when your parents or caregivers experienced difficult times—how did they manage difficult feelings within themselves? Did you witness them being compassionate toward themselves and others?

It is important to think about where your assumptions about self-compassion come from and, from that understanding, observe the impact they have had on you and your beliefs. Try to hold these beliefs and ideas that block you from being self-compassionate lightly rather than tightly or rigidly. Holding them lightly and taking a flexible approach can free you up to try being self-compassionate. Start by asking yourself each day: How am I feeling, and what can I do to help myself today?

Reason #2: You have specific fears about self-compassion

Self-compassion involves noticing and feeling painful emotions rather than constantly pushing them away. Suppose you tend to avoid emotional pain. In that case, you may fear that being self-compassionate will somehow “open the floodgates” to difficult emotions you won’t cope with—it will be too overwhelming. Sometimes, fear of self-compassion can be due to a worry that being self-compassionate may mean that your high standards will drop and you won’t succeed or achieve however you want to. Or perhaps you are a people pleaser who always looks after others’ needs before yours. In these circumstances, the idea of being self-compassionate may fill you with dread because you fear that it will take your focus off others and onto yourself. You, therefore, worry that your relationships will change or people won’t like, love, or accept you.

Expert tip:

Whether or not you are a people pleaser, you have very high standards, or you are not used to feeling your emotions, try to see this as a behavioural pattern that you can change. But start small and build up. When difficult things happen during your day, experiment with saying kind words to yourself, using a warm tone of voice. Notice the emotion you are feeling in that moment and offer yourself some kind words. Do this repeatedly over time.

Reason #3: You have a problematic relationship with yourself

A common experience is that you find it relatively easy to be compassionate toward others but impossible to direct compassion toward yourself. This can often be because of a difficult relationship you have with yourself—perhaps you tend to be blaming, judgemental, harsh, or self-critical. Or maybe you have low self-esteem or self-worth and don’t think much of yourself—this can often mean that you don’t deserve to be self-compassionate, and doing so evokes a sense of shame.

Expert tip:

If shame or self-criticism is a barrier to being self-compassionate, it can be helpful to take a different perspective. When you need self-compassion, think about a trusted friend or significant other. Imagine in your mind’s eye that they are in front of you, and they are telling you about something that is causing them to suffer emotionally. Consider asking yourself these questions:

  • What would I say to them? (Soothing words.)
  • How would I say it? (Warm tone.)
  • What would my facial expressions be like? (Friendly, supportive expression.)
  • What would I do to help them feel better? (Compassionate actions and gestures.)
  • How might they feel if you said and did all those things? (Supported, loved, cared for.)

Now that you have connected with compassionate thoughts, feelings, and actions for that friend, gently direct that towards yourself. If you would hug your friend, hug yourself. If you would say soothing words to them, say those words in a soothing, warm tone to yourself. At first, this may feel uncomfortable, and you may get some resistance from your critical mind, but with practice, it will get easier.

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