NOTE: I find that everyone can benefit from information on how to strengthen self-worth with self-compassion, so I highly recommend these practices for my therapy clients. I know that learning to be self-accepting was life-changing for me.
This information is lengthy, because I am attempting to condense numerous books, research articles, and other resources into something the average person can access. Unfortunately, this process may over-simplify some concepts here. For in-depth information, please check out the links throughout and Resources at the end of the article.
There are three main sections: Understanding Our Brains, What is Compassion? Compassion-Building Skills
Many people struggle with feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt and, believe it or not, this is a good thing — but within limits! Feelings of guilt and shame are “pro-social” emotions that help us learn to behave appropriately so that we treat others with kindness and fairness. If we didn’t experience guilt, we’d behave in “anti-social” ways — we might lack empathy and warmth or even engage in harmful or criminal behaviors.
Unfortunately, many people have not learned to manage experiences of inferiority or failure in a healthy, balanced way. Perhaps their parents didn’t know how to regulate their own feelings of insecurity, so they modeled unhealthy shame coping strategies. Or they were too permissive or protective or intrusive, which didn’t help children learn to tolerate experiences of inadequacy or struggle.
When thoughts of low self-worth become excessive and chronic, it can result in emotional and behavioral problems ranging from child behavioral issues to addictions to relationship dysfunction. Unfortunately, today’s “disease” model of mental “disorders” incorrectly labels these emotional experiences as anxiety, depression, social anxiety, ADHD, personality disorders and more.
The good news is that by developing a sense of compassion you can reduce self-criticism and learn to cope with the feelings of unworthiness that result. Doing so then reduces the tendency of your body and mind to react with a fearful response, which reduces your level of stress.
Research shows that self-compassion allows us to cope with emotional difficulty without being overwhelmed, helping to prevent anxiety, depression, shame, stress, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), suicidal ideation, eating disorders, addictions, and a host of other negative outcomes.
But whatever we label this process, we know that the warmth of tender self-compassion feels good, increasing positive outcomes such as happiness, hope, and life satisfaction.
UNDERSTANDING OUR BRAINS
Our Tricky Brains Cause Thinking Errors
Paul Gilbert, the developer of Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), says we have “tricky brains” because of the way emotions can hijack our rational brains. Our brains are wonderfully powerful, but can also get us into trouble and need to be managed.
To help explain, let’s describe the brain’s functions as being divided simply into the “emotional brain” (limbic system) and “thinking brain” (cortex). The thinking brain is a wonderful problem solver, but when it is hijacked by the emotions and motives of our “reptile brain” it leads us to being distressed about things that may not really exist. Because we can think, reason and imagine, this also means we can engage in unhealthy worry, rumination, and self-criticism. Rather than using thinking and attention to control unpleasant emotions or help us think clearly, the emotional brain pulls us in the direction of threat-based anxiety and anger.
As we’ll learn later, the good news is that we can learn to manage this tricky brain through mindfulness skills, such as meditation. Mindfulness helps us be more aware, less reactive, less emotional, and remain in the present moment more often.
Because of the way the human brain has evolved, we naturally have certain types of thinking errors or “cognitive biases.” Most of these are due to the impact of fear hijacking our rational brain. Fear is a survival emotion that wants us to err on the “better safe than sorry” side — so that we survive dangers. But this can make us hyperaware of dangers that may not be that dangerous. It helps to be aware of some common cognitive biases that may affect your thinking:
Catastrophizing: Fear wants us to imagine BIG dangers so we stay away from them. But this sometimes has us making mountains out of molehills.
Black-or-White Thinking: Fear wants us to make quick decisions so we take action to stay safe. It doesn’t want us to see nuances, but only extremes, again so we snap into action.
Negative Thinking: Fear triggers us to see the worst in situations, not the best or positive aspects, which can make us ignore good aspects of situations or people.
Fortune-Telling: A helpful aspect of fear is that it helps us plan for the future to protect us from potential risks. But it can lead us to make predictions without enough information or that are affected by other cognitive biases, such as catastrophizing and negative thinking.
Over-generalizing: Another helpful aspect of fear is that it identifies patterns so that we don’t repeat things that put us into danger. Touch a hot stove once and you quickly learn not to do it again — which is helpful. But this thinking error can get us into trouble if we have one bad experience (“I went on a date and it was terrible.”) and conclude that this one experience applies everywhere (“All dates will be terrible and I should never date again.”)
Judgmental: Being judgmental can be very helpful if there is an actual danger: “Bad things happen in dark alleys so I shouldn’t go in that dark alley.” But it may push us to quickly and erroneously label people or situations.
Stranger Danger: Fear pushes us to be wary of “strangers” or other new experiences, but this can lead to psychological problems. We might avoid making changes, fear new experiences, or isolate socially.
Our Tricky Brains and How They Handle Emotions Like Shame
Embarrassment is one of a group of emotions called self-conscious emotions, and includes guilt, shame, remorse and regret. These emotions feel “bad” and provoke difficult experiences of blushing, hiding, and defensive anger, yet they are considered pro-social emotions because they help us remain in relationship with others. Think about what should happen when we do something wrong: We should feel guilty, express remorse, apologize and work to correct our unkind or immoral behaviors. In this way guilt and shame are helpful, because they allow us to repair relationships with others when things go awry. So feeling guilty isn’t a bad thing — it just needs to be managed like any other emotion.
Unfortunately the vast majority of people today did not learn healthy shame tolerance. They are sensitive to failure, inadequacy or rejection, usually because their parents did not model or teach them how to work through these experiences with resilience and strength.
Shame is designed to heal, but if poorly tolerated can harm relationship with others and with the self. I call shame is the terrorist of emotions: We fear it so much we over-react to the actual level of threat. Just as a single attempted terrorist shoe bomber 20 years ago causes us all to remove our shoes at the airport to this day…one humiliating experience in second grade can make us ruminate about our failure decades later.
Shame and Relationships with Others
Poorly tolerated shame is a major source of difficulty in relationships with others because many people over-react to threats to their self-worth in three unhealthy ways. They will:
– blame others,
– blame themselves excessively, or
– avoid blame and shame.
It is important to recognize the power of shame and fear, because they are considered the underlying cause of what are now labeled “mental illnesses.” Nearly all mental disorders are actually shame intolerance disorders. Those who blame others have difficult personalities, with narcissistic and anti-social tendencies, oppositional and defiant tendencies, addictions, lack of accountability, lying, anger problems, high-conflict relationships, and other behavioral problems. This is because shame is a primary or deep emotion, which triggers secondary emotions such as arrogance, anger and vindictiveness.
In contrast, those who self-blame or are overly guilt ridden often are anxious, depressed, and have other mood disorders.
It makes sense that shame is such a powerful emotion. We all have a basic human need for love and belonging and feel afraid when rejected. However, shame is the opposite of love, because disconnection is the opposite of the primal need for belonging. It is no surprise that shame is the foundational emotion that fosters so much dysfunctional human behavior — it drives us away from love. The withdrawing and secrecy that are often part of the shame reaction disconnect us from human interaction in painful and harmful ways.
Shame and the Relationship with The Self
What is often missed is this important fact: Shame can harm the relationship you have with yourself. Poorly tolerated shame also drives us away from loving ourselves, which is why it provokes levels of distress that become labeled as mental illness. Believing others don’t love you is terrible, but knowing you don’t love you is soul destroying. We can also put it this way: Shame brings disconnection from the self; self-compassion builds connection with the self.
Our Caveman Brain Fears Social Exclusion
Part of healing our shame sensitivity is normalizing it and recognizing that we all have a deeply primal experience with this emotion. Shame and compassion are both strategies that arose through human evolution because they helped support survival and reproduction through pro-social mental states and behaviors. Shame helped our human ancestors get along with others so they were more likely to survive and reproduce. Immoral acts, such as greed or violence, led to expulsion from social groups, possible harm or death, and reduced reproduction opportunities.
In contrast, kindness and empathy led to “tend-and-befriend” behaviors, such as nurturance, protection, emotional support, altruism, reciprocity, conformity, and obedience.
As a social species, humans relied on moral emotions to ensure acceptance. Scientists believe that we developed shame displays, such as humility, appeasement and passivity, to acknowledge our rank in the hierarchy of our group. In this way guilt and shame were a mechanism to maintain social order. Shame is merely the emotion that helps shape human social behavior at the core of our moral behaviors by encouraging compliance and social cooperation.
The urge for social affiliation plays out in a strong desire to avoid feeling shamed, rejected and cast out. As a result, when we believe we may be ostracized, those with healthy shame tolerance generally have predictable reactions, including fear, humility, submission, and compliance.
This urge is so elemental that when our “tricky brains” feel victimized, rejected, or shamed by our social group, it can trigger the threat response. When anticipating social disconnection, our primal brain believes our survival is at stake and responds, perhaps in an exaggerated manner. Neuroscientists now know that the same parts of the brain that evaluate physical pain are used to judge the emotional pain of social rejection.
If you have not learned to tolerate shame you will be hyper-vigilant to being judged as inadequate and rejected. This rejection sensitivity triggers cognitive biases such as the tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to negative social comparisons.
Neurobiology of Fear and Shame
Next, you’re going to learn a bit of neurobiology about our “tricky brains” — but, don’t worry, it’s just a bit!
The Vagus Nerve extends from the brainstem into the chest and abdomen and influences the lungs, heart, and digestive system. It tells our brain how our body is feeling, notably if we feel safe or threatened. There are three parts of the vagus nerve:
1. Dorsal Vagal complex is a primitive brain function that immobilizes the body into the “freeze” response when threat is sensed and there is no escape. It includes feelings of hopelessness, withdrawal, shutdown, and apathy, which are affiliated with shame and “depression”.
2. The sympathetic nervous system was the next to evolve and mobilizes the body to take action — our “fight-or-flight” response. It increases heart rate, breathing, and muscle responses so we act to protect ourselves. It is then countered by the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to return us to calm after a threat has passed.
An important fact to know: Our threat system is simple and does not distinguish between or react differently to physical, social or emotional threats. In other words, a loud clunk in the night will cause the same nervous system response as your boyfriend failing to text you back.
And this is also very important:
Self-criticism also triggers the threat response. So when we consider the idea of self-compassion we see that managing negative self-talk is more than just a feel-good idea … it actually affects our neurobiology! Every self-doubt and self-judgment is actually putting your body and brain into the “fight-or-flight” response, leading to an elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, fearful worrying, muscle tension, and other responses.
3. The Ventral Vagal complex is our “social engagement system” and is part of our mammalian response that promotes social engagement when we are emotionally and physically safe. It allows us to access empathy, compassion, openness, positive expectations and trust.
If we don’t feel safe, we move “down” the ladder of the nervous system to the primitive sympathetic or dorsal vagal responses..
So what happens when we get ignored at a party or our boyfriend doesn’t text back? We feel rejected and a loss of social/emotional connection.This triggers our nervous system to signal “danger”. The rational part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) goes off line, the amygdala (primitive threat assessment) goes into overdrive leading to cognitive distortions, especially about shame. We try to figure out how to make sense of the situation but may erroneously be self-focused and ask: “What is wrong with me?” And we may conclude: “I’m not good enough to be loved.”
Relational and Acute Trauma Worsen Shame
Childhood experiences of disconnection, emotional neglect, insecure attachment and just “crappy parenting” are very common causes of low self-worth. Unlike acute trauma, which is easy to recognize as harmful, these are less obvious causes of feelings of inadequacy.
Parents may provide clothing, food and shelter, but may be emotionally distant. It is natural that when a child feels rejected by a parent, even in minor ways, the child concludes that they themselves must be the reason for the lack of warmth and reciprocity from the parent. Children have great difficulty blaming powerful parents for anything wrong in the relationship. This would go against primal needs and social hierarchies.
You may want to reflect on your relationship with your family of origin in therapy to consider whether this is a source of your low self-worth.
Learn more about the Five Causative Factors that worsen shame intolerance and how they affect you.
For more on childhood emotional neglect, see www.drjonicewebb.com and www.crappychildhoodfairy.com or any books by Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child, etc), which should be available at your local library.
WHAT IS COMPASSION?
Compassion is the Antidote to Low Self-worth
THE GOOD NEWS IS: If shame is the cause of so many of our human problems, self-acceptance is the answer and the antidote to shame. Self-acceptance is MORE than just “loving yourself.” Self-acceptance helps us manage the experience of shame.
This is because self-compassion decouples fear and shame. Self-compassion allows one to learn to tolerate feelings of guilt or failure or inadequacy without being triggered into fear.
For those with healthy shame tolerance, a shameful act leads to healthy guilt, with no emotional baggage of exaggerated fears of rejection, intense feelings of inadequacy, fears of future failure, and harsh self-criticism. They can stay engaged without triggering the “fight-or-flight” nervous system, which then also helps them face their failures and imperfections with equanimity.
The practice of accepting our imperfections allows us to accept and tolerate shame in a healthy way without over-reacting or under-reacting. If we deny, reject, or avoid dealing with negative feelings about ourselves we will go to great lengths to manage the shame directed at us using the three shame management strategies of Other-Blaming, Self-Blaming or Blame Avoiding.
Self-compassion also triggers the soothing/nurturing system of the ventral vagal system, moving you from the threat defense system to the caregiving system in brain and body.
Attributes of Self-Compassion
The Buddhist definition is: “When love meets suffering and stays loving, that’s compassion.”
Self-compassion involves setting your intention over and over again to be kind to yourself and is a skill you can learn that will always be available to you!
Compassion is a deep feeling for a suffering individual with the wish and effort to alleviate it. And self-compassion is compassion directed toward oneself; it means treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding with which we’d want to treat someone we truly love.
Kristen Neff, PhD, a leading research on self-compassion, says it gives us resources to meet, be open to and hold emotional pain: “We give ourselves compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad.”
- Attributes of Compassion are:
- A motivation to be caring toward self and others
- Sensitivity to the feelings and needs of self and others
- Sympathy and the ability to be moved and emotionally in tune with one’s feelings and needs for growth
- The ability to tolerate, rather than avoid, difficult feelings, memories or situations, especially those of failure, rejection or shame.
- Insight and understanding of how our mind works and why we feel as we do
- An accepting, non-condemning, non-submissive orientation to ourselves and others
- Being open-hearted, curious, and explorative about why we think and feel
- Non-judgmental and non-condemning
- Gives one the safety needed to turn toward and accept painful feelings so one can heal
Kristen Neff has identified three components to compassion:
- Kindness, which manifests as love. When our hearts are open, we can warmly embrace whatever arises in our experience with gentleness and care.
- Common humanity provides a sense of connection. By remembering that everyone experiences pain – that no one is perfect or leads a trouble-free life – we don’t feel so alone.
- Mindfulness gives us the self-awareness and perspective needed to be present with what is, rather than contracting in fear or shame.
Below is a list of specific skills you can develop to build a life filled with compassion.
- Develop mindfulness, a tool to manage emotions and thoughts and learn to:
- observe the mind, emotions and thoughts without reactivity or excessive judgment
- engage the “wise mind” so we can pause, deliberate and bring a balanced prospective
- interrupt emotional (fear/shame) hijack
- deliberately focus attention on things that are helpful
- use that attention to bring to mind helpful, compassionate images and/or a sense of self.
- tolerate and regulate difficult emotions
- For more specifics on how to develop a mindfulness or meditation practice.
- PRACTICE: Start improving self-awareness and mindfulness. Perhaps pick a small personal habit and work to be aware of it (mindfulness) then observe it in action/in the moment, then change it. Maybe start with a habit such as saying “like” every other sentence or fidgeting in annoying ways. When you observe these habits, be kind to yourself, and work to change using self-compassion.
- Develop thoughts of common humanity which counters fear-based thoughts of feeling different or isolated.
- It is helpful to see our own experience as part of larger human experience and not abnormal. Feeling different from or odd increases the primal fear of being rejected and isolated. Unfortunately, many people believe failure only happens to them or it shouldn’t happen to them, but these are errors in thinking. We need to learn to recognize that we all struggle with emotional pain, fear and doubt. Making mistakes is part of being human and when we can really accept this about ourselves we can become free from debilitating misplaced judgment and guilt.
- PRACTICE: Develop a sense of we-ness and connection to others. Look for the universality among all living things. We are more alike than we are different. Everyone struggles with feelings of inferiority and weakness, not just you. We are all imperfect.
- Build awareness of thoughts and emotions. Through mindfulness, improve your ability to non-judgmentally observe your thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Adopt a curious, wise mind, like a detective who is being objective and non-emotional. Once you are able to pause and note your self-talk, observe how many times your mind engages in comparisons, self-doubt, judgments, and negativity. Observe how easy it is to be critical and how difficult it may be to be kind and gentle to yourself and others. Self-criticism triggers the threat response mechanism in the brain, which can lead you to feeling anxious, hostile and depressed. Emotions and thoughts are linked. Our feelings trigger us to think a certain way. And the way we interpret and put meanings on events or relationships can inflame our emotions.
- PRACTICE: Become more aware of your threat emotions (fear, anger, shame). Observe how you feel and think when these emotions take over.
- PRACTICE: Observe when you are judgmental of others and yourself. Observe how easy it is to be critical and how difficult it may be to be kind and gentle to yourself and others.
- Be aware that fear for self-safety interferes with your ability to be compassionate for others. When we are chronically afraid, we spend our emotional and mental energy on self-protection, such as lashing out in “fight” response, retreating in “flight” response, or becoming passive in “freeze” response. When we are reacting with self-protection we are not capable of caring and empathy — even for ourselves!
- Most people’s greatest fear is feeling shame or humiliation — this is why public speaking is often cited as more frightening than death! Shame lead to self-protective behaviors of being unable to be accountable, to admit fault, to apologize or be wrong. It can lead to a fear of failure because one may not want to risk additional feelings of shame. Lack of motivation may be another result, because taking a risk may produce failure, which we may dread. Developing self-compassion can lead to improved motivation because one has less fear of failure and shame.
- PRACTICE: Learn to recognize your physical and mental experiences. Label emotions — this engages the pre-frontal cortex and disengages the limbic system. It may help to speak out loud about an experience or feeling: “I am feeling anxious, so my chest is tight,” or “When I am around my father, I become irritable and impatient,” or “I feel as if everyone is looking at me and thinks I am stupid, so I feel myself becoming flushed and nervous.”
- PRACTICE: Say to yourself: “This is a moment of suffering.” Then reflect: “How does this experience feel emotionally and in my body? Is it painful? Does this self-judgment serve me? Would I say this to a friend?” If not, then why are you saying it to yourself?
- Choose to take control of your emotions. You are not your thoughts or emotions. You do not have to let them control you. Emotions are signals from our body, mind and intuition. Thoughts and beliefs are just events in the mind. Use these signals as information, not as a requirement to react. Learn to let them flow through your brain. Through mindfulness we can learn to use our thinking brain to reflect, pause, and manage our emotional brain. Taking time to observe, reflect and choose new responses opens the door to conscious awareness, which brings possibility for change. Viktor Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Practice self-compassion. When you get good at observing your thoughts, engage in active self-compassion. Compassion is how you relate to yourself — with love and kindness. Be your own best friend. Be kind and forgiving toward yourself. Kindness is the antidote to excessive self-criticism. Note this difference: Mindfulness builds attention skills, self-compassion builds the INTENTION or motivation to be kind. A Buddhist saying is: “When love meets suffering and stays loving, that’s compassion.” You learned to be critical, you can un-learn that skill and learn to be compassionate. Compassionate thinking trains our minds to reason about ourselves, our emotions, and our relationships in a way that is helpful, not hurtful.
- PRACTICE: Ask yourself: “What is a helpful way for me to think about this problem or situation?”
- PRACTICE: Think: “This is an opportunity to engage in self-compassion.” Then consider: “What do I need right now?”
- PRACTICE: Ask yourself: “How would I talk to a child or a friend who was feeling as I am right now?” Or ”What would my wisest self say right now?”
- PRACTICE: You might consider something as simple as a deep inhale, placing your hands on your heart, followed by a full, long exhale to generate feelings of safety and soothing. It might be thoughts of “I am safe right now. I am worthy of care and kindness.” You might pause to challenge your negative thoughts: “Did the teacher really glare at me?” “Just because my girlfriend is going out with her friends doesn’t mean she is leaving me.”
- PRACTICE: Place your hand on your heart, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths to center yourself. Then tell yourself: “I am doing the best I can,” or “I am lovable just the way I am,” or “I love myself and others love me, too.”
- Add in accountability as a form of compassion. Compassion involves the wisdom to know how to relate to or respond to yourself. This may involve warmth and empathy, but may also involve invoking accountability or self-discipline to hold yourself responsible for your actions. It does not mean just indulging yourself or ‘letting yourself off the hook’. Compassion might include a firm, loving push to take action to protect yourself by being assertive toward others. Or it might be a compassionate “kick in the butt” to stop watching TV and start exercising. Sometimes the compassionate thing to do may be the harder or more courageous thing. Self-compassion may be a strong mental attitude that stands up against harm—the harm that others might want to cause us or that we inflict on ourselves by over-thinking and over-reacting.
- For Self-Blamers, the focus is more likely to be on improving self-kindness and reducing self-judgment. Fierce compassion, as Kristen Neff calls it, can also involve assertiveness and self-protective boundaries.
- For Other-Blamers and Blame Avoiders, the focus will need to be on improving personal responsibility.
- Compassionate people have strong self-worth and self-acceptance, so they can be open-hearted and honest about their mistakes, acknowledge them, and be accountable for their behaviors without feelings of fear, and defensive anger.
- Rabbi Debra Orenstein says: “The first step to true repentance is to overcome our natural, understandable resistance to finding ourselves at fault. If you could put your pride aside, what might you be prepared to admit, to apologize for, or to do?“
- PRACTICE Learn to feel the difference between shame-based criticism and compassionate self-correction. Often it may just be the tone of voice you use when speaking to yourself.
- PRACTICE: Strengthen your self-discipline to gain self-respect. Stop promising yourself you’ll exercise or eat healthier or sign up for college classes and actually do it — consistently and for a long time. When you fall off the wagon — and you will — be ready to engage with self-compassion for this failure. Say to yourself: “I am human and I have failed, but that’s ok. I’ll begin again and keep trying. This is a process and perfection isn’t the goal.”
- PRACTICE: Apologize to anyone you have wronged. Learn the four steps of an apology: 1) Acknowledging how your behaviors or words harmed another. 2) Apologizing fully and authentically 3) Promising to change 4) Change!
- Slow down. Practice yoga, tai chi, prayer, mindful walking, or other contemplative practices. Simplify your life, reduce chaos, noise, rushing, and pressure. Moving at a fast pace with no quiet time means you have less access to your intuition, your emotions, your thoughts. These are powerful resources to use in developing insight and compassion.
- Trauma expert Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D., has said: “The clinical research and treatment program showed that doing yoga was a more effective treatment for traumatized people…than any medication that had ever been studied. Opening up that relationship with your body, opening up your body to breathe, and to feel your body is very important.”
- PRACTICE: Consider adding three elements into every day even if just for a few minutes each: Stillness, Movement and Intuition. Stillness can be a seated meditation or just a few minutes of deep breathing. Movement could be a 3-mile walk or a few minutes of mindful stretching. Intuition could be journaling, reading a poem, or listening to music. Each of these three elements together can improve your mindfulness and self-awareness.
- PRACTICE: Engage in a daily gratitude practice to improve feelings of safety, abundance and self-protection. End each meditation with three thoughts of gratitude. Write down things you are grateful for. Look at this list every day and sit quietly feeling the warmth these thoughts bring to your heart. Many religious traditions pray and give thanks for blessings, which is also a useful practice that improves gratitude.
- Learn to accept that you are flawed and will make mistakes. All humans are imperfect, but many people believe that THEY should be perfect. Perfectionism often arises to avoid feeling ashamed or inferior. Learning to radically accept that you are imperfect can help free one from the fear of shame and failure. When we no longer need to hide our flaws behind inauthenticity, fear of vulnerability, or over-achieving and perfectionism we can show up in relationships as real, open, loving and calm. For more, read my blog.
- PRACTICE: Develop your vulnerability by asking for help. Many who struggle with low self-worth feel they must not burden others and must be hyper-independent. Often this comes from childhood experiences of being abused, bullied, ignored or not warmly treated when they did need comfort or assistance. Practice asking for help by starting small with a close friend and then building up to bigger “asks.” Explore how this feels to be inter-dependent.
- PRACTICE Admit you have a flaw and practice radically accepting that flaw. Admit a past mistake and own that feeling of shame. Admit you don’t know something. Be honest with yourself about your traits and behaviors that harm others. Learn to accept instruction with equanimity and poise.
- Give up the myth that self-hatred helps fix you. Most people believe they must constantly nag at themselves in a self-critical way so that they correct bad behavior. But the exact opposite is true! Harsh self-judgments may reinforce feelings of shame. When you feel “less than” and weak, you are less likely to feel self-accepting and self-affirming. Self-kindness makes us more responsible, not less.
- For relationships: You are much more likely to be critical, harsh and rejecting toward others if you are practicing those same behaviors on yourself. One way to improve relationships is to tone down the self-judgment. When we have high levels of self-shame, the tendency is to both “lash in” at ourselves but also to “lash out” at others in anger. Those with high levels of anger at others must first address the high levels of anger they have with themselves.
- PRACTICE: When you observe yourself engaging in self-judgment and threat-based thinking, ask yourself: “Is this thinking helpful to me? Would I think like this if I weren’t upset (using threat emotions)? Would I teach a child or friend to think like this? If not, how would I teach them to think about these things? How might I think about this when I am at my compassionate best?”
- Identify beliefs you have about yourself. Self-understanding can liberate us from mental models from the past that we continue to automatically accept. These mental models may lead us to unthinkingly behave in ways that are unhealthy and can bias our perceptions of ourself, our world and our relationships.
- PRACTICE: Ask yourself: “What is it about myself that I don’t want others to see?” “What do I most judge about myself” or “What am I most trying to hide?” Identify where those thoughts came from. Did your parents or former partners convince you that you were unworthy or unloveable? Take a realistic look at your beliefs and the agenda of those who may have instilled them. Were these people critical of everyone, not just you? Should you keep accepting these opinions as accurate and reasonable?
- PRACTICE: Write down a list of your negative attributes (lazy, greedy, unkind, etc). Then write a list of your positive attributes (loving, responsible, generous, etc). What was the experience like to write each list? Was it easier to write one list?
- Recognize thoughts and beliefs that involve a motivation to seek approval. Many people who lack self-acceptance are dependent on others to fulfill their need for approval. This leads to fear of failure, fear of exposure, and feelings of shame. Being dependent on others for approval and self-worth puts you in a one-down position, making you fearful and dependent on others for feelings of “safety”. With self-acceptance, this feeling of being helpless and powerless disappears and your fears and anxieties about being judged are reduced. I say: Sometimes we’re so concerned with being in love and wanting to be loved that we forget to love ourselves in the process.
- Recognize your history. If you were traumatized in childhood by abuse, molestation, substance abusing parents, neglect or abandonment, you likely developed feelings of low self-worth and are easily triggered into your emotional brain or the threat response.
- PRACTICE: Discuss these memories and experiences in therapy. Read recommended books on childhood trauma and attachment.
- PRACTICE: Explore and write about memories from your childhood that taught you to be critical or judgmental of yourself. Recall memories of your parents or caregivers and how you felt when they criticized you.
Take a self-compassion test
Guided Meditations & Info:
Chris Germer’s Website and Guided Meditations:: http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/
Kristen Neff’s Website and Guided Meditations: http://www.self-compassion.org/
Self-compassion exercises: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/
Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and Guided Meditations: https://centerformsc.org/practice-msc/
Center for Compassion Focused Therapy: http://www.mindfulcompassion.com/what-we-do-1-1/
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center Guided Meditations: www.marc.ucla.edu
Tara Brach’s Dharma Talks: http://www.dharmaseed.org
Mindfulness Exercises and Resources for Children: https://www.shambhala.com/sittingstilllikeafrog/
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff, PhD, 2011
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, by Christopher Germer
Mindful Compassion, Paul Gilbert, PhD, and Choden
Overcoming Postnatal Depression using Compassion Focused Therapy, Michelle Cree
List of additional books: http://self-compassion.org/resources-2/
On the power of gratitude
Kristen Neff on the need for fierce compassion
…be kind to yourself