As a fan of The Great British Baking Show, there was a moment in season one that stood out to me where one of the bakers tossed their baked Alaska in the garbage because the ice cream melted. By way of background, the premise of the show is that amateur bakers are selected to compete and showcase their baking skills while being judged by professional bakers. At judgement time, the judges said that if the baker had kept their baked Alaska they could have at least judged the taste of it versus getting no credit at all. In that moment the baker threw out the cake, they were probably frustrated or may have even felt like they were a failure. When mistakes happen, how do you react? Do you rush in to self-judgment and self-criticism? Do you throw your hands up and conclude you are not good enough? While these reactions are common, I invite you to try a different approach. Try being compassionate with yourself.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is being present and aware of one’s own suffering, offering kindness and warmth, and recognizing that suffering is a part of the human condition. How might self-compassion help?
Let us return to our British baking example. Self-compassion might help someone be fully present while receiving feedback rather than being caught up in embarrassment or frustration, or depression because they didn’t get it “right.” Instead of concluding that we are “terrible” and giving up, self-compassion can help us be more open to learning so we can do better next time (e.g. hearing that my cake is underbaked and could have used 5-10 more minutes in the oven).
Self-compassion in action might look like telling myself that it is understandable to feel frustrated because I worked really hard. Or, it could look like recognizing that others make mistakes too. If I am self-compassionate, I might be willing to accept that I am not perfect and give myself the benefit of the doubt that I am capable of learning from my mistakes, and capable of growing and doing better. Self-compassion does NOT mean telling yourself you are “just great” when things are clearly not great. This also does not provide us the opportunity to learn and grow.
What self-compassion is NOT
Some people struggle with the idea of practicing self-compassion because they think they are giving themselves a “pass” for “bad behavior,” or that it is indulgent or lazy. Some people are turned off from the idea of self-compassion because they think it is about sugar-coating a bad situation. This is not what it means to be self-compassionate. Self-compassion helps us see things as they are, which can be painful at times. It helps us take accountability for our actions and see ourselves in a non-judgmental way. It helps us see ourselves without being overcritical and without avoiding self-reflection.
Self-compassion helps us make space for the difficult emotions that naturally show up when we realize we made a mistake or when we otherwise feel inadequate or bad about ourselves. It is in these moments of suffering when we need self-compassion the most. If we avoid thinking about and feeling what we perceive as a mistake, we miss the opportunity to improve. Similarly, if we tell ourselves it is “fine” when it is not, we continue to make the same mistakes. When you think about it, self-compassion takes a lot of courage, and is not lazy or indulgent.
Why self-compassion can be hard to practice
I have been studying self-compassion, trying to practice self-compassion, and teaching it to clients for years, and still it is a challenging concept to grasp at times. Most people I work with really struggle with what it means to be self-compassionate. This is understandable for several reasons. One, it is not something that is widely practiced within our culture and society; in fact, much of our society operates under the assumption that being hard on yourself and others is the only way to succeed. Two, to truly practice self-compassion means to come in to contact with painful emotions, something for which we naturally try to avoid.
Why self-compassion is helpful
Self-compassion means adopting a kind stance to our suffering, being fully present and aware of our experience without judging it, and recognizing that all of us struggle. To be fully present with feelings of inadequacy, shame, guilt, hopelessness is extremely painful. Self-compassion helps us have these emotions and in doing so growing to be a brighter version of ourselves, to get unstuck from negative self-talk, and be more connected to ourselves and the things we care about in life. Self-compassion has been shown to alleviate suffering associated with many psychological struggles, such as anxiety and depression. See https://self-compassion.org/ for more information.
Would you choose to offer yourself understanding during suffering, or would you choose to be harsh and cold? If you chose harsh and cold, ask yourself whether this approach has been helpful for you in the long-run. Now think about how you would want another person to treat you in your moment of suffering – would you want warmth or coldness? Now think about how you would treat a friend when they suffer – would you kick them while they are down, or would you offer support?