Self-compassion is the new self-love

When we think of Valentine’s Day, we think of romantic dinners with a love interest, marriage proposals, extravagant gift-giving to a significant other, struggling to get dinner reservations at your favourite restaurant, or a candlelit dinner at home.

Love is often a word associated with another person, or an object, or a pet. It is something we think of as being projected outwards, towards someone, or something else.

Rarely do we think of love as a natural or healthy feeling to experience or direct toward oneself. It connotes selfishness and is even pathologized in some cases. We ascribe self-love as being indicative of pathological disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder. We picture a highly-polished man or woman preening before every mirror they see, not a hair out of place, or the tragic Greek figure Narcissus who died by the edge of a river after he fell in love with his own image reflecting back at him. That is not healthy self-love. That is extreme insecurity masquerading and compensating as self-love.

Instead of pathologizing the concept of self-love, psychologists and self-help circles are encouraging people to have self-compassion; to direct that compassion we would normally provide a friend during tough times to ourselves during our own tough times.

Most people struggle to like themselves, let alone love themselves. “Loving oneself” sounds like a vague pop psychology term with no real meaning. How do you “love yourself?” It doesn’t seem to make much sense or mean anything.

Let’s rephrase that this Valentine’s Day and think about being kind to yourself instead.

Kindness, self-compassion and self-acceptance are the concepts we need to focus on.

A lot of our issues are rooted in a deep-seated feeling of self-loathing. We beat ourselves up and say things to ourselves we wouldn’t dream of saying to a best friend, an elderly parent, or a beloved child. We aren’t as kind to ourselves as we should be.

We easily give that kindness away to others who are suffering.

But when we are suffering, or make mistakes, we berate ourselves. Berating oneself causes feelings of hopelessness, or giving up, and we then keep repeating the same self-defeating behaviours over and over again because we figure, ‘why bother? I’m just going to screw up again.’

Self-compassion workshops are at the root of many mental wellness programs and therapies for things like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, addictions, and trauma-related disorders.

Being a supportive friend to yourself is at the root of self-compassion. A friend doesn’t have to be someone else – you can, and should be, your own best friend for life. And the internal monologue and ‘automatic thoughts’ you have every day shape how you feel about, and toward, yourself, shaping your own core self-concept.

If we were raised to be self-loathing by harsh caregivers, it stands to reason you’ll have a poor core self-concept in adulthood, which could lead to all sorts of unhealthy behaviour patterns.

Those caregivers probably judged you, scolded you and made you feel like you could never do anything right.

So let’s define self-compassion. The three basic elements of self-compassion are self-kindness vs. self-judgment; common humanity vs. isolation; and mindfulness vs. over-identification.

Self-judgment is berating yourself for making mistakes and having personal shortcomings. You might not be the fastest runner on the track team and that one girl is always beating you in every race, no matter how much training you put in, you can’t seem to catch her. With self-kindness, you can tell yourself that you can’t be number one at everything and remember the times you did get first place in something. You can also tell yourself that your achievements do not define your self-worth and they shouldn’t define the level of kindness you give yourself. Newborns do not achieve anything – they eat, sleep and stare at you, yet their worth is immeasurable. Achievements do not equal worth.

Common humanity is realizing that every person is facing the same struggles you are; instead of comparing yourself and beating yourself up for not having it all together like that perfect-seeming mom with the perfect kids, house, outfit, hair, makeup and husband. She is more than likely suffering in some deep-rooted way that you can’t see – she shares a common humanity with you and comparing her life with yours is not self-compassion, nor does it help you become happier or more satisfied with yourself or your life. Those comparisons will leave you feeling isolated and cut off from society – a reject among the “perfect” moms at the daycare drop-off circle. We all need to be kind to one another and ourselves. You are not meant to be flawless.

Finally, mindfulness is an important tool in self-compassion. Being aware of your emotions and feeling them adequately – neither too much, nor suppressing them – is a skill that can be learned. Over-identifying with your pain, sadness, anger, etc. leads to magnification of your suffering and that’s not anything anyone wants. Mindfulness teaches us to observe our emotions like clouds passing by in the sky – picture the emotions as a cloud and put a name on that cloud, identify them, label them, view them from afar. You’re acknowledging the feelings and emotions without becoming engulfed by them.

You can practice journaling your thoughts and feelings every day when you have a quiet minute to remind yourself to view the day’s events in a self-compassionate way. If you made a mistake that ate you up all day, acknowledge it and talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend who made the same mistake. Making it into a two-way conversation in your journal helps to make the self-compassion real.

There are a lot of resources and printable worksheets and workbooks online for self-compassion. Your doctor can also refer you to self-compassion therapy groups in your area.

This Valentine’s Day, re-connect with your one true love: yourself.

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