By design, my Instagram is filled with messages telling me to love myself just as I am. I am trying, I really am. I follow the most inspiring people on Instagram. I am all about Bunny Michael’s conversations with her higher self. And I check out artist Mari Andrews when I want to feel like I’m getting healing oxygen to my heart (her “magical things about New York” series alone does the job).
But doesn’t the idea of self-love, self-acceptance, and even self-compassion feel a bit self-indulgent? Don’t get me wrong, when I see someone fiercely owning what they’ve got—including the particular “flaws” that actually make them more compelling, more vulnerable, more attractive, and more interesting—I feel the power and authenticity of that. And none of it seems braggy or selfish.
But when it comes to me, though, I can’t shake the feeling that I want wait until I’m a little bit better before I focus on self-compassion. Which is probably why I ended up in C-student territory when I tested my self-compassion using a quiz in The New York Times (adapted from the research of Kristin Neff, PhD).
The verdict: “You have a moderate level of self-compassion but could benefit from some self reflection on how to be kind toward yourself. Try a writing exercise in which you write about a time when you struggled or failed and how you felt about yourself. Now consider how you would treat a close friend in the same situation.”
Of course I would make a friend feel better. But letting myself off the hook for anything, if I’m being honest, just seems lazy.
According to Neff’s research, though, my approach (and I’m guessing I’m not the only one, since Brené Brown’s research on shame is consistently on the best-seller lists) is not only painful but it doesn’t get the best results either.
Here’s how Neff defines self-compassion: “Being kind and caring to yourself instead of harshly self-critical; framing imperfection in terms of the shared human experience; and seeing things clearly without ignoring or exaggerating problems,” she writes in Psychology Today.
“While the motivational power of self-criticism comes from fear, the motivational power of self-compassion comes from love. When we care about ourselves, we’ll try to change any behaviors that are causing us harm.” —Kristin Neff, PhD
She also says that if you’re like me, and not bursting with self-compassion, you’re just following the the norms of our culture (which means you can also work to un-follow them). “The number one reason people give for why they aren’t more self-compassionate is that they’re afraid if they’re too soft on themselves, they’ll let themselves get away with anything. They really believe that their internal judge plays a crucial role in keeping them in line and on track. In other words, they confuse self-compassion with self-indulgence.”
And, that voice that tells me that I should just improve before switching into self-love gear actually reveals an underlying belief that an inner hardass drill sergeant has to do the “real work” before I can indulge in positive feelings.
Even from a purely productivity-based perspective, that kind of thinking is actually dead wrong, Neff argues. “While the motivational power of self-criticism comes from fear, the motivational power of self-compassion comes from love. When we care about ourselves, we’ll try to change any behaviors that are causing us harm. We’ll also be much more likely to admit those areas of needed change because it’s emotionally safer to see ourselves clearly,” she says. “If we are harshly self-critical, we’re likely to hide the truth from ourselves—or even better yet—blame our problems on someone else, in order to avoid self-flagellation. If it’s safe to admit our own flaws, however, we can more clearly see the areas that need work.”
So, it looks like I have a few Post-Its to add to my bathroom mirror, to get this message through to my trying-to-be-mindful brain. As with everything, maybe a little Mary Oliver to start off:
“When will you have a little pity for
every soft thing
that walks through the world,
Another way to cure body shame and boost self-acceptance: photograph yourself nude, as one Well+Good editor discovered. Or, you can just channel self-love queen Ariane Grande.
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