I recently read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, where she wrote about the ten guideposts to whole-hearted living. As I was reading, I found myself relating to many of her approaches. I was particularly drawn to her discussion on vulnerability and shame. Her writing provided helpful language I now use when I talk to my students about certain issues. However, it was right in the middle of her book that I experienced a powerful moment of self-reflection that completely caught me off guard: My inner voice often lies, causing a serious self-compassion problem. I had just taken an online quiz, available through The Center for Mindful Self Compassion, https://self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are/, and my results confirmed what I had previously suspected, my self-compassion was near disastrous.
Kristen Neff, co-founder for The Center for Mindful Self Compassion, defines self-compassion as a “practice in which we learn to be a good friend to ourselves when we need it most–to become an inner ally rather than an inner enemy.” It encompasses three core elements: “self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.” The research around self-compassion clearly states that it is one of the most important things a person can do to decrease anxiety and depression and increase happiness and confidence. After learning more about self-compassion, I realized how important it is for me to make it a priority in my life. (If you would like to read more about self-compassion, I highly recommend Brene Brown and Kristen Neff as resources for this topic.)
As I began my journey of self-compassion, I found that leaning into this practice did not, at least initially, require drastic change. I decided to start with a small practice. I chose to try and focus on the language I allowed my inner voice to use. For example, I was having a conversation with another social worker when I made a harsh comment about myself. She looked at me and with empathy asked, “Is that true?” I was caught off guard and had to pause to really think about it. Finally I said, “Well, no.” She responded, “Then don’t say it about yourself.” Just then I had a lightbulb moment: if I shouldn’t say it out loud, I shouldn’t say it…even just to myself. The language of and research on self-compassion started to make more practical sense. It suddenly became obviously simple: If something is not true, don’t say it, not even to yourself. But, so many of us do this, allow our inner voice to lie to us. We create one high expectation after another, setting ourselves up to impossible standards and then we tear into ourselves when we don’t live up to our unrealistic expectations. Taking this a step further into the language of self-compassion, I thought about self-kindness: What would I say to a friend in that same situation? Would I talk to them the way I talked to myself? I realized I wasn’t being a very good friend to myself.
I want to share a few current situations where I am learning to apply self-compassion.
Recently, I had a particularly difficult experience at work when a student was put in a position where they were hurt and I felt helpless to support them. My inner voice said, “Why do you keep showing up? You can’t help anyone and these kids would be better off with someone else.” Because, the situation was terrible and I was so sad and mad. However, is it true that “I can’t help anyone?” No, that is not true. Then don’t say it. I pushed myself further again and thought, how would I talk to a friend if something terrible happened to a student they worked with? I would likely say something like, “It is hard to care so much about the kids you work with and still see them hurting. They are so lucky to have you there to provide unconditional support even when things are tough.” Is that the truth? Yes! Then say it! Say it to a friend, but also say it to myself.
Another example occurred the other day when I was frustrated with my son. I had asked him to put on his shoes and coat probably 10 times during a 10 minute time frame while I ran around the house trying to collect the million items we needed before we could leave. With my arms full, I started to push open the front door when I turned and noticed that my son still did not have his shoes on. I shouted, “Seriously!? Can you not see how much I am doing right now? I should not have to ask you one more time to put your shoes on.” Then I stormed out of the house and threw everything in the car. My son slowly followed, looking miserable, and said, “It makes me feel so sad when you shout at me.” My inner voice had a field day with this one. Instantly I thought to myself, “He’s right, I am a terrible mother, what was I thinking? I clearly shouldn’t be a mom if I don’t even have patience.” Is that true? No! Absolutely not. My frustration was justified, my lack of patience was understandable, and even if it wasn’t, that one moment does not determine what kind of mother I am. And, it sure does not mean that I should not be one. Furthermore, what would I say to a friend in a similar situation? “How frustrating!” I would say, “It is ok to explain to your kids that they have to listen when you ask them to do something. If you don’t help them learn that, how will they know? It is good that they have a mom who is willing to teach them what they need to learn.” Is that the truth? Yes! Then say it! Again, not only to a friend, but also to myself.
Now, self-compassion does not mean lying to yourself and twisting every situation into a positive. It actually means just the opposite. If the truth is ugly, let it be ugly. Because, do you know who else has ugly truths? Literally everybody. Did you lose your cool when you shouldn’t have? Or direct misplaced anger at someone close to you when they didn’t deserve it? Acknowledge that, fix it. Remember that everybody makes mistakes and your worth as a person is not tied to mistakes.
That is one of the truly cruel things about a negative inner voice, that it will try to convince you that you are alone in your experiences, mistakes, and regrets and that no one else struggles. The lying voice might whisper that you are the only social worker who has seen a student get hurt; you are the only mom who made her son cry; you are the only wife who took out misplaced anger on her husband. Only you. But that is not the truth. One of the cornerstones of self-compassion is “common humanity,” we are all human. Not only do we need to talk to ourselves like we would talk to a friend, we need to talk to ourselves like we are human. Imperfect, still growing, daily changing, human. And that is okay.
So, I’m trying. I’m trying to look for the truth. When my inner voice is full of lies, I am trying to confront it. Because if it is not true, don’t say it (not even quietly to myself). If I can learn self-compassion, I can model it for my students and my kids. Then they can grow up knowing about the language of self-compassion and its importance before their inner voice learns how to hurt them with lies. That is enough motivation for me.
Author: Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.