Self-compassion is not self-indulgent

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grey wolf

One common concern about self-compassion is that it’ll make us lazy and self-indulgent — that if we become more self-compassionate we’ll lack motivation. Self-indulgence means avoiding difficulties, which may benefit us in the short term, but which is detrimental in the long term. Self-indulgence is when we cop out. So we might imagine that when faced with doing something difficult, being “kind” to ourselves means that we’ll let ourselves off the hook. But that’s the opposite of what actually happens.

Self-compassion means giving yourself support, understanding, and encouragement when you face difficult experiences. It helps you to face your difficulties.

Self-compassion recognizes that your long-term happiness is served not by avoiding challenges, but in offering yourself support as you go through them. Self-compassion gives us courage.

Let’s say you’ve had to give a presentation, and it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. A typical non-compassionate response might be, “What an idiot I am! I’m always messing up. I made a complete fool of myself. I was stupid even to try!” The next time you’re asked to do a presentation you’ll probably be even more nervous, which will make it even harder for you to do well. Or perhaps you’ll find a way to avoid doing the next presentation altogether. That avoidance is self-indulgence. It’s a protective response to stop you from having to face the discomfort involved in doing something challenging.

What would be a self-compassionate response to the same situation? Perhaps you’d take a breath, acknowledge your pain, and say something like, “I know this hurts, but I’m here for you.”

Perhaps you’d remind yourself that you’re not perfect and that since giving presentations is something you’re still learning, it’s natural that you’re not going to do it perfectly. Maybe you’d reflect on the ways you could have been better prepared, to improve your performance the next time.

Or maybe you would ask a colleague what they thought of your presentation, since sometimes our “failures” are largely or even entirely in our own minds. You could ask for feedback about specific things you could have done differently in order to make your presentations more effective.

It’s almost impossible to do those very helpful things when we lack self-compassion. When we’re hard on ourselves we don’t want even to think about our failures, because to do so just gives us one more opportunity to beat ourselves up. We certainly don’t want to reflect on our failures in order to learn. All we want to do is to forget they ever happened.

At the same time, when we lack self-compassion we often can’t forget our failures! Our mind keeps reminding us of the thing we did imperfectly, and so we get recurring, and very painful eruptions of shame and humiliation.

Self-compassion gives us the emotional resilience to be able to bounce back from failure. It helps us to have the courage to pick ourselves up and try again. Self-compassion is what allows us to turn toward the painful feelings of fear, frustration, and shame that arise when we face challenges, and it’s what allows us to keep going through difficulties. Self-compassion is not indulgent. Self-compassion and self-indulgence are, in fact, opposites.


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