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The 3 Laws Of Self-Compassion Will Make You Tougher
Sky People in nature Sunset Orange Sunrise

You canโ€™t be compassionate and irresponsible at the same time
Joe Hunt
Mar 26, 2021 ยท 8 min read
โ€œSelf-compassionโ€ is one of those phrases that can trigger an almost instant roll of the eyes.

It can conjure up images of self-indulgent behavior like allowing yourself that extra piece of cake because you deserve it. Or of denying responsibility and letting yourself off the hook for spending all your income last month on cake.
Professor of Psychology Dr. Kristin Neff had a similar perspective on self-compassion when she first encountered the concept during a Buddhist meetup:
โ€œYou mean youโ€™re actually allowed to be nice to yourself, to have compassion for yourself when you mess up or are going through a really hard time? I donโ€™t know . . . if Iโ€™m too self-compassionate, wonโ€™t I just be lazy and selfish?โ€
It took Dr. Neff a while to get her head around the idea.

In the West, self-compassion gets mixed up with the desire to feel special. We think itโ€™s about making yourself feel better and disowning or reframing your issues and flaws as if touching up an imperfect selfie with some quick photoshopping.
In Buddhism, self-compassion has nothing to do with pampering yourself or glossing over the facts.

Itโ€™s about being able to face up to and cultivate a healthy relationship with pain. As the Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says, โ€œSelf-compassion and self-forgiveness are not weaknesses, but the roots of our courage and magnanimityโ€.

Through researching the idea, Dr. Neff began to understand that self-compassion does not make you lazy, selfish, complacent, or weak. She found it was โ€œthe foundation for resilienceโ€ and the key to moving beyond self-doubt and paralysis and into clarity and action.

Many years after her initial encounter, Dr. Neff is now a pioneer in the field of self-compassion. She created a scale to measure it, authored the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and co-founded the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.
In particular, during her research, Dr. Neff discovered self-compassion has three core components: Self-kindness instead of harsh self-criticism, seeing things clearly without ignoring or exaggerating problems, and framing imperfection in terms of the shared human experience.

Unlike the common ideas about self-compassion, she says that each of these components will lead you to take more responsibility for your actions, give you more motivation to act and take risks, and will make you more self-confident to pursue a meaningful life.

1. Taking Responsibility For Your Life
The first law in Dr. Neffโ€™s model is self-kindness vs self-criticism.
A major part of self-compassion is learning to relate to yourself as you would a friendโ€”not as a naughty child or a prisoner of war. But this newfound way of being kinder to yourself can be taken too far, especially if thereโ€™s been a battle going on inside yourself for years.

Thereโ€™s nothing wrong with taking it easier on yourself. But according to Dr. Neff, the problem is that self-compassion is often mistaken for letting yourself off the hook.

For instance, there may be demands in your life that are causing you stress and things about yourself youโ€™re not satisfied with.

Instead of doing the difficult thing and being honest and taking responsibility for them, self-compassion can swoop in to help you instantly relieve external pressure, let go of whatโ€™s troubling you, and remind you that youโ€™re an imperfect human that is fine just as they are.

This superficial self-compassion may quieten down the inner critic, but it may also leave you stuck in the same place โ€” and even less likely to take personal responsibility for your life and actions.

Dr. Neff says the number one reason people arenโ€™t more self-compassionate is โ€œtheyโ€™re afraid if theyโ€™re too soft on themselves, theyโ€™ll let themselves get away with anything.โ€

When you care about yourself, you naturally try to change behaviors that are causing harm โ€” to yourself and others. Youโ€™re also much more likely to see and admit to the areas youโ€™re not happy with because itโ€™s safer to be vulnerable.

When youโ€™re overly easy on yourself, you donโ€™t notice these areas for improvement and thus donโ€™t benefit from growing from your mistakes.

You donโ€™t see the need to pursue change and end up stuck in the same unproductive and harmful cycles.
Self-kindness is what opens the doors to being honest with yourself.

It allows you to see things more objectively, as if relating to a friend, instead of just with a critical eye in which everything is a negative reflection of what a big fat smelly jerk you are.

When slipping up on your gym goals or writing a crappy article doesnโ€™t automatically mean youโ€™re a big fat smelly jerk, suddenly it becomes a lot easier to take responsibility for yourself and keep moving forward.

2. The Motivation To Dream Big & Take Risks

Self-compassion is the path of responsibility. But the idea of the self-compassionate person still brings to mind someone who mooches around all day in their softest undies and indulges in a life of leisure.

This idea calls into question the act of setting big goals and pushing yourself. If you become more self-compassionate, wonโ€™t you just replace your gym goals and ambitions at work with self-care rituals and home baking?

Dr. Neff explains the idea that compassion means taking the easy route, settling for less, and taking fewer risks in life is just another common misconception.

By being able to turn towards more parts of yourself without fear of the inner dictator, you become more motivated to change and take action. What it comes down to is, according to Dr. Neff, that, โ€œwhile the motivational power of self-criticism comes from fear, the motivational power of self-compassion comes from love.โ€

This doesnโ€™t mean you become all starry-eyed and motivated to hug everyone. It just means youโ€™re driven less by the need to run from yourself and your problems, and more pulled by the desire to realize positive change.

Many studies show that people who are self-compassionate are less consumed by the fear of failure and negative beliefs, and so they have a state of mind that is more conducive to putting forth effort.

It might not feel like a walk in the park, though.

Other studies show that when people practice compassion towards themselves, they have less shame โ€” a negative evaluation of oneโ€™s worth as a person. However, they are more likely to feel guilt โ€” a sense of remorse and the desire to make amends.

This is why another core element of Dr. Neffโ€™s model is the ability to observe and be with your negative thoughts and emotions rather than judging, suppressing, or denying them.

For instance, when you see that failure isnโ€™t so personal, you can embrace the very real pain without meeting it with harsh self-judgments. Difficulties are not seen as problems to get rid of or personal faults that reflect you, but are seen as a part of life and fuel which you can use to learn and grow.

In this way, rather than encouraging complacency and self-indulgent behavior, self-compassion motivates you to shoot high and reach your full potential.

3. Self-Confidence Without Feeling Self-Important

Feeling confident in yourself and your abilities is often thought of as being a question of having high self-esteem.

But the thing is about high self-esteem is that it depends on subjective evaluations on how you feel about yourself. It therefore requires you to continually self-reflect and ignore or fluff up the not-so-positive aspects of yourself.

Dr. Neff explains that, as research is now showing, the need to continually evaluate yourself positively can come at a high price.

First, it can make you focus more on yourself and what makes you different or more special than other people. It sees yourself as more in competition and less in harmony with those around you.

Second, if your self-esteem rests on feeling good about yourself, then should you fall below your standards or get a pimple on your nose, then your whole sense of self-worth can come crashing down.

The result of high self-esteem is paradoxically, therefore, often not more self-confidence, but more insecurity, anxiety, and disconnectedness.

The main reason for this is western culture is based on how weโ€™re different from each other. Weโ€™re told to be independent and take what is ours, and having high self-esteem helps us stand out, feel special, and believe in ourselves.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is based on what makes us similar and connects us. This is the third element of Dr. Neffโ€™s model: seeing that โ€œour suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience โ€” something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to โ€œmeโ€ alone.โ€

Self-compassion starts with the fact that the human condition is imperfect. And so, thereโ€™s no need to constantly evaluate yourself positively and build up your self-importance with fragile beliefs.

Thereโ€™s also no need to hide your flaws or shy away from the stuff you donโ€™t like about yourself to feel special and capable.

Self-compassion is what enables you to be vulnerable enough to fail, to suffer, and to be imperfect. It allows you to own up to your shortcomings, instead of seeing them as a fault of something out of your control like where you grew up or due to someone elseโ€™s successes or mistakes.

When your sense of self-worth doesnโ€™t depend on which side of the bed you woke up on and how you measure up to those around you, then itโ€™s fair to say itโ€™s much more stable.

Itโ€™s also much stronger as itโ€™s grounded in a common understanding of pain and difficulty โ€” something we all share.

When youโ€™re not afraid to be a faulty human and to mess up, then youโ€™re freer to have much more trust and confidence in yourself and others.
Self-compassion is not an overnight solution that will instantly make your life easier and better in every way.
Itโ€™s a process that takes strength and dedication. Each time you choose to treat yourself with a little more kindness โ€” and honesty โ€” youโ€™re sowing the seeds for a more compassionate life.

You have everything you need to start with Dr. Neffโ€™s three elements. If you want to take it a bit further, you can try out one of her short practices.

But, if youโ€™re anything like me, you probably already have plenty of opportunities for being more self-compassionate during your day. The last thing you want is to turn it into another practice you need to do to improve.

Thinking self-compassion is another thing you need to do to become some kind of perfect, glowing, endlessly generous being is not what this stuff is all about. More the opposite.

Itโ€™s about knowing youโ€™ll face frustrations, have losses, make mistakes, smash up against limitations, and fall short of your ideals.

But that you donโ€™t need to fight against these facts or turn them into reasons to give up or not try.
With some self-compassion, such imperfections and obstacles can become useful, albeit painful, reminders for helping you to live a kinder, more engaged, and connected life.
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