What I hate about self-compassion is that it is represented as the “answer” to psychological distress when it alone is not. Even conversations about applying self-compassion alone in therapy ring hollow and unhelpful.
Imagine if you were feeling socially-insecure and struggling with guilty thoughts, and your therapist simply said, “Be kind to yourself.” You would be left with the nagging feeling that compassion is a good start in terms of the important task of releasing judgement and condemnation, but not the compete answer. You would either learn to automatically gloss-over the icky parts of your life and your self or be repeatedly pummeled with self-doubt minutes after the reassuring compassion is applied.
I first learned of the psychology of self-esteem from Nathaniel Brandon. I respected his perspective as one that was grounded squarely in experience and reality: To truly respect yourself, affirmations ring hollow. It is necessary to practice the key ingredients of compassion: tolerance and validation, yes. But it is equally as important to practice self awareness and integrity (an awareness-of and adherence to your own values) in order to be able to hold your head up high, come what may.
I later read the best-seller “Self-Esteem,” and these authors didn’t just stop at emphasizing compassionate thinking. They also went into great detail about understanding the perspectives of others and personal accountability.
Even Brene Brown, the queen of eradicating shame, talks about the importance of “practicing critical awareness” when it comes to feeling good about yourself.
To expand on what I hate about self-compassion: As it is often explained- without the elements of self-awareness, integrity, and self-accountability- it is hollow and unhelpful at best and breeding self-denial and narcissism at worst.
Part of the problem is that “Compassion” is a word that is defined too broadly. Are we talking about kindness? Acceptance no matter what? Approval no matter what? I’d rather describe it as “validation,” or “understanding that behaviors and feelings are understandable and not worthy of condemnation.” If compassion were defined as such, we would know that self compassion does the leg-work of eradicating judgement, but also allows room for personal growth- The kind of personal growth that impresses one’s self and gives a reality-based basis for legitimate self-regard.
Compassion defined as such leaves room for “critical awareness” and integrity (accountability for acting according to your values).
Scenario: I never play with my three year old.
“Compassion” alone: “Oh, it’s okay. You work so hard. Be easy on yourself.”
Validation plus critical awareness plus realistic behavioral accountability: “It makes sense that I don’t play with him because it’s boring, and God knows I have a million other things I could be doing. I don’t judge myself for having a brain that makes it harder to tolerate the monotony of legos and bad guys saying the same thing over and over. My values are spending time with my kids though, for a bunch of reasons. My realistic goal is to play legos with him for ten minutes a day right when my husband gets home from work, and take him on three outings a week where I won’t get sucked into my distractions. Wallah! I feel actually BETTER about my parenting! No more icky guilty of self-doubt!”
Scenario: I have a nagging feeling of I adequacy because my boss gave me critical feedback on a report.
“Compassion” alone: “You tried your best. Hey, it was a good job overall! Chin up, and give yourself some credit!”
Validation plus critical awareness plus realistic behavioral accountability: “It makes sense that I made a bunch of mistakes because I typed the damn thing on my phone since my computer is broken. I was also pretty distracted, trying to do it while pretending to watch a Martial Arts class. If I’m honest, my neurology makes me pretty distractable and careless. I do think it’s important to ensure that my reports are polished and professional, though. So my realistic goal is to not take a report unless I know I can set aside four uninterrupted hours at the office with a working computer. Woo-hoo! My next reports are awesome, and boy do I feel great about myself!”
Scenario: I have a nagging feeling of inadequacy becaise my husband, who gets home from work three hours after I do, sighed about pasta for dinner once again.
“Compassion” alone: “You’re a great wife. Don’t let it get to you. Think of all the great things you do for your family!”
Validation plus critical awareness plus realistic behavioral accountability: “It is understandable that I didn’t make it to the grocery store, and I already know that I’m not the best planner. I accept that matter-of-factly and without judgement. Besides, I actually don’t value having a variety of homecooked meals, so why would I prioritize cooking when the kids love frozen ravioli and canned veggies?! But now I know my husband does value it, and I do value his perspectives. My realistic plan is to tell him I understand that good food is important to him, so we need to think of a way to work together to meal plan and grocery shop. Husband feels understood and I feel like damn good partner. No self-doubt here.”
Here’s the deal. Often times self-defeating and guilty thoughts are neurologically primed and reinforcing (kind of like an addiction). Saying “Oh it’s okay; You’re so great” does not challenge the thought. The brain needs something else to hold onto. It needs a tangible and accessible REASON why “Oh, it’s okay. You’re okay” is true, or the lies of guilt and worthlessness and negativity will creep right back in (This compulsive thinking can be tempetred by repeated mindful observation and/or medication too). For more about how actually critically challenging thoughts in a non-judgemental manner is a legit scientifically-proven method, read the fifth chapter of this book (guarantee most libraries have it).
From the therapist who loves her some non-judgemental validation so much that she thinks we should start saying it instead of “self-compassion” so there is no confusion that directly challenging thoughts and engaging in helpful behaviors are proven keys to well-being.