As a therapist I've sat with many individuals who have developed a deep-rooted belief that they're not good enough, not lovable, or not worthy. These beliefs are often the result of not getting some basic needs met at a very tender age when we were dependent on our primary caregivers for our survival. Infants and young children's brains cannot yet comprehend that their parent or caregiver could have both good moods and bad, be both loving and dismissive, rejecting, or in some cases even cruel. For their survival children need to believe they will be protected and cared for. When the person they love and dependent on does not meet their needs, which can range from recurrent miss-attunement without repair to the deep wounds of neglect and abuse, the vulnerable young infant or child begins to embody a sense that "something must be wrong with me", and so begins the turning against one's self.
Fortunately the brain and body are capable of forming new patterns of thought and concurrent physiological actions. We don't have to continue turning against ourselves with what really amounts to self inflicted violence. What's needed is to begin a practice, like the one below, of giving our adult selves the kindness and compassion we were unable to give ourselves as children. It may feel awkward at first, like learning any new skill it takes repetition to integrate self-compassion, but what a worthy investment you are!
Self-compassion generates self-acceptance, appreciation, confidence and wellbeing. When we recognize our intrinsic value we relax and settle into ourselves, it is an antidote to the collapsed posture and freeze of shame. Everyone has failures, there part of how we learn and evolve, but unlike self-esteem, self-compassion does not relate to our performance or some arbitrary measure of success. Self-compassion is never about pity, perfection or narcissism, instead fostering acceptance, awareness, accountability and growth. Practicing self-compassion creates a foundation of warmth where kindness to oneself and others can blossom.
We can learn to stop and catch our thoughts as we begin to turn against ourselves. For the last 20 years Kristin Neff, PhD, has been a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research. I highly recommend her self-compassion quiz (it's quick and painless) at www.self-compassion.org. Neff, along with Christopher Germer, PhD, created the Mindful Self-Compassion training program. In their books and trainings they teach that it is essential for us to embrace our suffering with kindness, and to recognize that failure, imperfection, and suffering are part of our shared humanity. They have identified three elements of self-compassion: Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment, Common humanity vs. Isolation, and Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. The following practice incorporates all three and is adapted from Neff and Germer's teachings.
Find a place to sit comfortably, take a few relaxed full breaths and center yourself.
Think of a recent self-critical thought. Choose one that is not too triggering or upsetting, but something you've judged yourself for. It might be along the lines of, "I shouldn't have said that", "how could I have been so___", or "why is this happening to me".
1. Let the phrase "this is a moment of suffering" drop into your awareness. This is Germer and Neff's phrase to bring in mindfulness by turning toward your suffering. If this phrase does not resonate for you than choose one that does. Some options are "this is really hard", "this truly sucks", or "I'm going through a tough time".
2. Now bring the phrase "remembering that suffering is a part of life" into your awareness. This is her reminder of our common humanity. Again you can find other phrases that fit for you such as, "other people are experiencing similar struggles" or "it's natural to have experiences like this".
3. Finally, bring in kindness toward yourself with gentle touch, and words of support, tenderness, and care. The touch is important as it signals your body/mind that you are safe (when we criticize ourselves our body looses sight of that fact), and this in turn calms you.
For touch you can try placing your hands on your heart, your abdomen, cradling your face, or giving yourself a hug. Notice how your body feels as you try each, usually one or two will feel especially soothing. You might also try one hand on your heart with the other on your forehead or abdomen, and when others are present you can gently clasp your hands to practice without drawing attention to yourself.
If you're struggling to find words of support think of what you would say to someone you love who was going through the same situation, or the tender things you would say to a young child in distress, "your not alone, I'm here for you", "that must have been really hard, it will get easier" or "you are loved".
When you practice, it's okay to bring in touch and words of compassion second rather than third, as long as you start with mindfully turning toward the suffering, and remember to bring in the common humanity toward the end.
Although this particular practice was not available when I began, I know from first hand experience that you can accomplish this kinder inner dialogue. With practice your inner voice will soften, and as you connect with self-kindness your body will relax as well. I'm reminded of a verse from the poem The Invitation:
"I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments." - Oriah
Self-compassion calls for you to open your heart, to honor and accept your humanity. Throughout your life, more than anyone else, you are the one you're with.