A recent story over at The New York Times‘ Well blog — Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges — by Tara Parker Pope explores the new psychological school of self-compassion. While people might find it relatively easy to offer support to their friends and families, they are far less compassionate to themselves — as anyone who has ever missed a few days at the gym can likely attest. But research shows that people who are able to be kinder to themselves, to not get bogged down in the myriad imperfections we all have, are less likely to be depressed and anxious and more likely to be in better health.
The story quotes Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin: “I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.” It makes sense. For so many people, making a mistake (or simply not living up to an ideal) triggers feelings of shame and inadequacy. Over-ate on your vacation? Missed spin class to go to the movies with some friends? Forgot your sister’s birthday? You must not be good enough, smart enough or strong enough — and that’s why you need to change.
But Dr. Neff says that self-compassion is actually more motivating than a pattern of self-criticism and negativity. “The reason you don’t let your children eat five big tubs of ice cream is because you care about them,” she says. “With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.” For those who struggle with self-compassion, Dr. Neff prescribes exercises, such as writing yourself a letter of support and making a list of your best and worst traits to remind yourself that nobody’s perfect.
Self-compassion can sound great, but it can be awfully hard to implement. We’re often focused on the people who appear to have more — rather than the many, many who have less — and it’s tempting to believe that their lives are better and ours could be, too, if it weren’t for our own failings. It can be hard to scrub your mind of the idea that something close to perfection is possible — even if we drive ourselves crazy in the process. But learning to give yourself a break, and remembering that nobody’s flawless, can not only help motivate you to make positive changes, but can also help you better enjoy the ride along the way.