It was every parent’s nightmare.
Kristin Neff was on an airplane with her husband and her young son, Rowan, and all was well.
Until Rowan suddenly threw a tantrum. And not just any tantrum. This was a crying, screaming, flailing-on-the-floor kind of tantrum.
Kristin was mortified.
She took Rowan from his seat and led him, literally kicking and screaming, up the aisle of the airplane, hoping to get him into a bathroom where she and Rowan could work together toward settling him down.
“I could feel the daggers coming from the other passengers’ eyes,” she said. “They all assumed he was just some kid who was acting out terribly.”
What the passengers didn’t know is that Rowan has autism and sometimes there was not a lot that could be done about his tantrums.
Reaching the airplane bathroom, Kristin saw the dreaded red-letter word: occupied.
With Rowan still screaming and struggling, Kristin did something unexpected and very courageous:
She was kind to herself.
Quietly, while hanging on to Rowan and facing row after row of irritated, staring passengers, Kristin repeated to herself:
This is a moment of suffering
Suffering is a part of life
May I be kind to myself
May I give myself the compassion I need
The Courage to Be Self-Compassionate
How was Kristin able to be kind to herself in that horrible moment rather than lapsing into panic, anger, or lashing out at Rowan in some way?
I’m sure her years of practice in loving-kindness meditation were helpful and essential. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that she is the leading researcher and expert in the field of self-compassion.
Years of observing people stumbling over the concept of self-compassion has shown her that we commonly think that treating ourselves kindly will result in being lazy, self-indulgent, and wallowing in self-pity.
As these traits are devalued in our culture, you may have used a universal way to motivate yourself: self-criticism.
Self-criticism actually does work to motivate us to a certain extent.
However, it creates a lot of trouble in doing so: fear of failure, thoughts of not being good enough, and fear of humiliation, just to name a few.
And, says Dr. Neff, self-criticism also provides you with the illusion of control. If you just worked harder, looked prettier, or acted nicer, you could achieve that perfection you’ve been seeking, right?
You know the answer to that question, but the pursuit of perfection and the lure of control are hard to shake.
That’s why it takes courage to be self-compassionate.
It requires you to release control and acknowledge that you are imperfect, that you make mistakes and always will. Rather than struggling with the unreachable goal of perfection, self-compassion requires you to let go of your resistance to your own humanity and go with it instead.
The Myths of Self-Compassion
Let’s look more closely at some of the beliefs we have about self-compassion which, as it turns out, really aren’t true.
Myth 1: Self-compassion is selfish.
In our culture, we are taught to care for everyone except ourselves. Self-compassion can thus be seen as selfish, that taking care of yourself means you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing: taking care of someone else.
Reality: Caring for others requires loving-kindness and authenticity. If you haven’t created those traits for yourself, how can you give them to others?
Myth 2: Self-compassion is indulgent.
You might be concerned that being nice to yourself just lets you off the hook and encourages you to be self-indulgent.
Reality: Self-compassion is about your health and well-being while self-indulgence is about getting anything you want when you want it without thoughts of well-being.
Self-compassion is about noticing and being with your pain. Self-indulgence is about numbing and denying your pain.
Myth 3: Self-criticism is what motivates you.
As mentioned above, sometimes self-criticism does provide motivation. One of the things it likely evolved to do was to keep us safe.
Reality: While it’s possible the inner critic developed to perform this task, you don’t need it anymore. We have many ways to keep ourselves safe, so we really don’t need a critical voice in our heads to do so.
Similarly, we don’t need to be internally nagged and disparaged to accomplish things. Being self-compassionate gives you the confidence you need to motivate yourself.
Myth 4: Self-compassion is wimpy.
In our individualistic society, you are supposed to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and tough things out. Be kind to yourself? Quit being such a wimp!
Reality: Actually, self-compassion serves to heal and strengthen you. It is, in fact, the strongest and most resilient among us who have the courage to be kind to ourselves.
5 Ways to Be Nicer to Yourself
1. Acknowledge your suffering and pain.
You have likely been conditioned to ignore, deny, or suppress your pain but this will only result in more suffering down the road.
Practice noticing your pain and your tender spots and gently give yourself validation that they are real and deserve compassion.
2. Treat yourself as you would a friend.
Think for a moment of how you talk to yourself when you are going through a rough time.
Now think about if your friend was experiencing the same thing. How would you talk to her? How would you treat her?
It’s likely you treat yourself much worse than you would a friend who is having the same problems. You might even treat yourself worse than an enemy with those problems!
Talk to and treat yourself as you would your friend.
Speak gently to yourself. Be understanding.
Wrap your arms around your shoulders in a hug or put your hands over your heart in a physical display of affection and comfort.
3. Remember the idea of common humanity.
Even if you are going through a tough time of your own doing, does that mean you shouldn’t be kind to yourself?
No. It means you’re human.
You are a part of the greater whole of humanity and, as such, remember that all humans are flawed, make mistakes, and are deserving of compassion.
4. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to your current experience without judgment.
Rather than running away from or suppressing pain, mindfulness allows us just to be with these feelings as they are. When Kristin Neff stood with a screaming Rowan at the front of that plane, her practice of mindfulness allowed her to act instead of just react.
She was able to see clearly what her situation was and chose to be self-compassionate rather than becoming angry with Rowan or berating herself.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Neff’s website has a number of guided meditations to help you along the way.
5. Repeat after me.
In a quiet place, take a deep, soothing breath, close your eyes, and repeat this loving-kindness meditation to yourself:
May I be safe
May I be peaceful
May I be kind to myself
May I accept myself as I am
Psychotherapist Bobbi Emel helps you bounce back from the significant challenges in your life. Download her FREE ebook, Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs. You can also join her on Facebook where she posts other cool stuff.