Be a Compassionate Mess.

Kristen Neff

The Stable Ground of Self Compassion

By Parke Sterling, LPC

  • Have you ever had that person in your life whom you can tell loved you just by the way he or she looked at you? They can be almost embarrassingly doting at times, but when you are in their presence, all your rough edges feel a little smoother. Why is it so hard for all of us to treat ourselves that way, especially as we age?

It feels to me that rather than unconditional self-compassion, we take a different approach. Many of us strive for the unstable ground of self-esteem as we get older. Maybe it’s our protestant work ethic and the subtle belief that we have to EARN our worthiness. Nothing is given to you. No pain, no gain, right?

Self-esteem, however, is a “what have you done for me lately” kind of gig. Its bedrock is comparison. We cannot feel good or bad about ourselves or our accomplishments without first comparing ourselves to others or at least an idealized version of ourselves, the latter being either a younger version or maybe a fantasized version with abs and an extra digit tacked onto our bank account.

Humans evolved to compare themselves to the rest of the tribe to ensure that they conform and are contributing. This ensured that we remained within the protective walls of our community. However, these days, we are not comparing ourselves to the 200 members of the tribe; we are comparing ourselves to the 7 billion other members of the human race. Thank you, social media (sorry, had to get that in). Now, we get to compare ourselves to the “unicorns” of the fitness, business and social worlds. No matter how talented we are, ALL of us can find somebody who is more accomplished in an area of life where we are insecure. The result is that our standards change and we no longer measure up. Cue the low self-esteem.

It’s also important to ask, what exactly is low self-esteem? To me, the experience of low self-esteem seems to be nothing other than a series of critical, unpleasant thoughts that just arise on their own. If we experience these thoughts, were we born with them? If not, where did they come from?

Yes, the comparison piece is a big part of it. The other big contributor is what we gather from others on whether we are “good enough.” This is like a slow drip that over time can fill our not good enough bucket to the brim. For example, if I’m told every day, either subtly or overtly, that “I’m not thin enough” or “I’m stupid,” eventually that story will start playing on repeat in MY head. Why are we calling this “self-esteem” again? Shouldn’t it be called “other-esteem”? We basically feel good or not so good about ourselves based on how others feel about us. And god only knows to what level their own insecurities, hang-ups and low self-esteem factor into their opinion of us.

So what is more stable ground? Self-compassion. And if you recoiled slightly when you read that word, that’s ok. Have some self-compassion for that reflex as well. Self-compassion is interesting. It’s simple, yet people find it daunting. We tell others to be self-compassionate with phrases such as “go easy on yourself” or “you are doing your best,” yet some of us find it nearly intolerable to apply it to ourselves. Many of us subconsciously believe that we don’t deserve it or that it’s selfish in some ways.

So what is self-compassion? It’s simply bringing a sense of acknowledgment to our pain, validating our experience and then applying some love or kindness to the struggle.

How can we switch teams from low self-esteem to self-compassion? Try the following:

Surrender the quest for self-esteem

It’s an exhausting, fluctuating and frustrating ride, one that you have very little control over. The most successful people on earth (minus the narcissists) are walking around with the same doubts that they may not be good enough that you have. If they haven’t fully gotten there, what chance do we have? Instead, accept that sometimes you will feel good about yourself and sometimes you won’t and this is largely based on comparison and your conditioning.

Accept the equipment that you have been given

I probably overuse this phrase, but I love it. If a genie popped out of my coffee cup right now and said, “Give me 10 things that you want changed about yourself,” I would probably say, “Thank god, I’ve been waiting for you. Here is a list of 50 I’ve had on standby!” I suspect this is universal and points to the more realistic goal of not loving or liking everything about ourselves, but learning to “accept ourselves, warts and all,” then befriending ourselves and stepping forward as the person we want to be.

Befriend yourself

How do we actually do this? There are different approaches, but many follow three primary steps. See a video here or try the following.

1st step – Acknowledge and allow the pain

Notice and Allow It

  • Where do you feel the pain? Does it show up in the body?

  • Sit with it for a moment and drop the struggle with it. Treat it like a scared orphan that’s wandered up to your doorstep as opposed to a burglar coming to rob the body of your house.

  • Breathe into, expand around it, ALLOW it.

    Name and Unhook from the story that is playing

  • There is the “I’m too fat story again” or give it a persona, thank it and stop taking marching orders from it. “Thank you, drill sergeant, I appreciate that!”

    2nd step - Validate the pain by recognizing the common humanity

  • Remind yourself: “This is a really difficult time and would be for anyone. Many people have and are struggling with the exact thing that I’m struggling with now.”

  • Remember that if another person had my exact DNA and genetics, they wouldn’t be “like me,” they would BE ME and make the same choices and missteps that I have. This is more impersonal than personal.

    3th Step – Treat yourself with kindness

  • Visualize the face of that loving person that I referenced at the beginning. What would he or she say to you? Embrace you? See the details as vividly as possible.

  • Imagine your breath is a balm of self-compassion. Breathe right into the pain and apply that balm whenever you need it, not to eradicate the feeling but just to send it some comfort and warmth.

  • Put your hand on your heart and say to yourself what you would say to a dear friend – “You got this” or “You are doing a good job with what you have right now” are my favorites. You can go as lovey as you want on this.

Step forward as the person you want to be

If you are going to grade yourself, do so based on how capable you are and what you DO as opposed to how you FEEL. The former you have far more control over than the latter. You can feel not so great about yourself at times AND like your actions. It’s not an either/or.

Use low self-esteem as a signal

Low self-esteem means that your self-compassion tank is running low. Acknowledge, Validate and & Apply the balm of kindness. You can do this in 3 minutes flat. Then engage in the things that will deposit (exercise, laugh, call a friend) in your emotional bank account as opposed to withdraw (booze, over-eating).

If you are saddled with a bully of a mind, then reach out to talk about how therapy can help. You can reach me at Parke@RichmondAnxiety.com, or feel free to text or call 804-210-7891. To learn more, visit www.RichmondAnxiety.com.

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