Recently, a client told me that he’d been reading about self-compassion in the context of healing from the cycle of restrictive/binge eating; it seemed so radically opposite his own experience. He wondered aloud, 'How is self-compassion different from self-indulgence -- from giving myself permission to eat whatever appeals to me because I deserve it?' For as long as this client can remember (and he is not alone), he has been motivated by a harsh, self-critical voice.
So how is being self-compassionate not simply letting oneself “off the hook?”
As a healthcare practitioner, it’s easy to urge a client to be ‘kind’ to himself without addressing the inner dialogue (or outright confusion and fear) this idea brings up. As a human, I certainly understand my client’s questions.
Self-compassion or self-indulgence?
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer researcher in the field of self-compassion and Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, self-indulgence involves choosing short-term pleasure at the cost of long-term harm. In contrast, self-compassion aims to alleviate harm.1 Neff uses a parenting analogy to illustrate. Compassionate parents wouldn’t (typically) allow their children to stay up all night watching television and eating bottomless bowls of ice cream; they know that allowing this behavior would ultimately prove harmful for their kids. Instead, compassionate parents set healthy boundaries for their children, asking them to complete their homework and get to bed at a reasonable hour.
This logic isn’t as easy to apply to ourselves but the idea is the same: When we practice self-compassion, we naturally want the best for ourselves, too.
Additionally, research suggests that practicing self-compassion may reduce negative affect and lend to forgiving ourselves more easily in the face of an undesirable event; and rather than being an excuse to "let oneself go," it increases personal responsibility surrounding the event.2
Choosing New Year’s resolutions motivated by compassion
Neff believes that if self-criticism works as a motivator, it’s often because we’re driven by a desire to avoid self-judgment when we fail. Yet, what if failing didn’t have to mean an endless barrage of self-punishing thoughts? For starters, it might be a little easier not only to set challenging goals (i.e., less frightening to try), but also to keep working towards these goals when obstacles arise. As Neff articulates, “Self-compassionate people set high standards for themselves, but they aren’t as upset when they don’t meet their goals.”1
Approaching our 2018 resolutions with compassion sets the stage for curiosity when things don't go perfectly (newsflash = things won't go perfectly!). If the voice in our head is kinder, we can honestly examine what's not going well and why -- and adjust our goals rather than discarding them altogether.
1. Neff, K. (2015, November). Self-compassion: Why it makes us happier, more resilient, and kinder to others. Shambala Sun, 58-63.
2. Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887-904.
See also: self-compassion.org/the-research/#