Why You're Not Treating Yourself Kindly + How To Start
Studies have continuously shown that self-compassion is effective in treating depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more. Recently, it has also proven to be the most effective route to healthier behaviors (including weight loss, if that's serving for you).
Yet many people are resistant to bringing it into their lives as they believe it will make them weak or unmotivated.
Here are four myths about compassion that are holding you back from a better life:
1. Compassion is the same as pity.
Pema Chodron refers to pity as the near enemy of compassion. Unlike compassion, pity connotes condescension, patronization, and a power dynamic — a belief of superiority and inferiority whereupon the one being "pitied" is inferior. So why would you want to give yourself compassion, if you view it as pity?
Compassion differs from pity in that it puts us on the same level as the suffering individual. It assumes we're all in this together; it says, "From one who has suffered and will suffer to another who is suffering, I give you compassion."
2. People who are kind to themselves are lazy and unmotivated.
Many people think that being compassionate to oneself means letting go of all goals and expectations. That it means you're going to relax into hours upon hours of Netflix, only leaving the house to get more Miss Vickie's. That being a compassionate parent means being a permissive parent who never disciplines her child.
But that's not what compassion is. It's not compassionate to let go of these important aspects of growth and development. Compassion is about having realistic expectations, and high support — think of that really good coach, music or dance instructor, teacher or parent. They still expected you to perform, they still pushed you, and they still benched you when you missed practice or got in a fight on the field, but they focused their disappointment on behaviors rather than you as a person.
Underneath it all, they were understanding, forgiving, empathetic, and tolerant. They were compassionate.
3. Compassion is something you're born with.
Some think that you either have it or you don't, but compassion CAN be learned. It's a trainable skill. We all have the capacity for it; we all have the seeds within us; we just need to nurture that part of ourselves. Is there a person in your life whom you've felt warmth and love from? Perhaps a parent, grandparent, teacher, coach, friend, or animal.
Can you think of a time you've felt compassion for someone or something else? Perhaps a child, friend, or pet. Just because you might perceive yourself to be hardened or uncompassionate right now doesn't mean you're not capable of feeling learning the language of compassion. A book I recommend for many of my clients is Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff.
4. Self-compassion leads to narcissism, self-love, and a big ego.
Back in the self-esteem movement of the 90s, the messages we received were "You're perfect." "You're special." "You're above average." "You're better than everyone else." Remember participation ribbons? Those messages lead to narcissism, self-love, and a big ego (and a whole lot of interpersonal problems).
Self-compassion, however, is not the same as self-love or telling yourself you're perfect. Self-compassion says, "You're imperfect, and that's OK." "You're better than average at some things, worse than average at other things, about average at many things, as is everyone else." "All beings struggle and experience joy and pain, and all are worthy of love and compassion." "We're all in this together."
So, when you're responding to yourself or others with compassion, keep in mind it's not about saying you're "the best" or can do no wrong. It's about saying yes, you're imperfect, you're human, and you make mistakes; those mistakes likely do not fall in line with your values (otherwise you wouldn't consider them mistakes), thus the way to remediate them and move closer to enlightenment is by meditating on them (using wisdom and compassion) and making future change.
Consider playing with the idea of being nice to yourself. Remember it's like learning a new language, or, as I like to say, breaking in a new pair of shoes, so it will feel foreign and awkward and uncomfortable at first. You can always revert to the language of self-criticism if you decide self-compassion isn't working for you — most of us are pretty good at that ...
Megan Bruneau, M.A., is a therapist, executive coach, and wellness writer based in New York City. She received her bachelor of arts in psychology and family studies from the University of British Columbia and a masters of arts in counselling psychology from Simon Fraser University. She is a registered clinical counselor (RCC) in British Columbia, but now works with clients in New York and globally via remote work. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences, Bruneau has contributed to The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Thrillist and has appears on Good Morning America and New York 1 Morning News. She is also the host of the podcast Better Because of It.