Support self-criticism with self-compassion
I still have nightmares about the screw-up I made as a serving officer in the UK's armed forces in 1977. I made an error of judgement and paid heavily and publicly for doing so. As a result, I remember falling prey to very personal and highly damaging self-condemnation. With a complete lack of self-compassion, I branded myself a failure.
So I was stunned when I received many letters from friends and from people I did not know expressing sympathy, encouragement and bewilderment at what had happened. Yes, there were a few anonymous poison pens, but most letters were compassionate, positive and heartwarming. I still have these letters and read them when life is a little bleak.
Compassion and critical reflection
This reaction should not have been such a surprise to me. We often talk about the importance of friends. Indeed, scientific research by Dr Kristen Neff, an acknowledged expert in self-compassion, showed that people tend to be kinder to others than they are to themselves (even when they are not at fault).
Of course, being self-compassionate does not mean you shouldn't be self-critical. On the contrary, critical reflection is essential for helping you work out where you went wrong, how to make it right and how to avoid repeating the same mistake. So self-compassion and self-criticism are equally important and should go hand-in-hand.
An exercise in self-compassion
You will make mistakes, especially if you have big goals around making a difference in the world. So, you can brand yourself a failure, as I did, which is singularly unhelpful. Or you can exercise self-compassion. This short exercise, based on a practice developed by Neff, will help.
- Recall a time when a friend screwed up and told you about it. Write down what you did or said to your friend. Be accurate and detailed and record your feelings, the degree of support and compassion you showed, how you spoke and acted, etc.
- Repeat the exercise, but apply it to yourself when you were suffering and distressed. Record what you did and said to yourself and how you said it (even if it was all in your mind).
- Now, look at the two situations and highlight differences in your response to your friend and yourself. Ask yourself why you treated your friend and yourself so differently.
- Go back to your situation, and respond to your misfortune in the compassionate and supportive way you responded to your friend.
- Get into the habit of responding to future mistakes with the self-compassion you offered your friend.
Here is the thing. Things may go differently than planned when trying to improve the world. When this happens, treat yourself as you would your best friend, with compassion, help and support. Get into the habit of self-compassion, which will make a significant difference in your life and those you seek to serve.
Neff, Kristin D. “The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion.” Self and Identity, vol. 2, no. 3, July 2003, pp. 223–250, https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309027.
Taking it further:
Explore self-compassion at Kristin Neff’s website: https://self-compassion.org/
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