When things aren’t going the way we want them to, or we aren’t coping as well as we think we should be, we can get caught up in criticising and judging ourselves. This can seem like a helpful and productive way to motivate ourselves to better actions and outcomes but it rarely works that way.
I’m not going to elaborate any further myself because I’m going to leave that to my wonderful guest, Self-Compassion and Mindfulness Teacher, Catherine Kell. I find Catherine and her work so inspiring and I’m delighted that she accepted my invitation to share her expertise with us here. In this blog post, Catherine answers my questions about how self-compassion can help you feel happier and more content, as well as sharing some simple, manageable steps to start practicing self-compassion. Let’s dive in!
1. As a self-compassion teacher, please share with us how you define self-compassion.
For me, self-compassion is about treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding when we are suffering as we would treat others who are suffering. If our dearest friend was struggling with what we are struggling with, what would we say to them? Recognising our common humanity is important – we are not alone in our very human responses to our pain. To really cultivate self-compassion we need to develop our mindful awareness too, because if we don’t notice our suffering, we don’t do anything to alleviate it. For me, mindfulness really is the foundation of self-compassion. There’s a ‘tuning in’ to ourselves that is crucial. It’s an opening of our own heart, and embracing what we find there.
The word suffering in itself can be tricky for some, so when I’m teaching I tend to expand that word. For example, suffering can mean navigating our failures and mistakes, struggling with life experiences, feeling caught up in comparison, anger, fear, judgement. It can mean feeling shame, feeling inadequate, unworthy, guilty, disappointed, sad. It can mean being distressed, or berated and nit-picked by our inner critic day-in-day-out, or being tangled in an unhealthy pursuit of pleasing others to the detriment of ourselves, or aiming for perfection above all else (we are all imperfect by the way!). I think our journey as mums throws up a lot of challenge and difficulty (as well as a lot of joy of course). Mothers have a LOT of feelings, many of them new and destabilising, plus we are the container for the feelings of our children too.
The thing about feelings and emotions is that they are universal, part of the shared human experience, and how we relate to ourselves having these feelings is so important to our well-being. So many of us judge ourselves for even having the feelings in the first place! Instead, I help people learn how to notice, how to turn towards themselves kindly, and how to take action to feel better.
2. How can self-compassion help us feel happier and more content in our lives?
Self-compassion really interrupts the cycle of being unkind to ourselves! It is offering ourselves something different – something kind, caring, supportive, motivating and protecting. We all have the capacity to be compassionate, it’s in our nature (hello, mums!) however so many of us are not used to offering it to ourselves. But it is a skill that can be cultivated and developed and in doing so we can get unstuck from unhelpful patterns of thinking and from behaviours that are detrimental to our wellbeing. Self-compassion helps us reframe our experience into something more helpful, or gives us space to honour our feelings without shutting them down.
Self-compassion also strengthens us and builds our resilience to handle life’s toughest challenges. When difficulties arise we are better placed to handle them and this brings us a level of happiness and contentment too because instead of getting stuck in anger and frustration, we can navigate a different path. Self-compassion is a very powerful resource in our life toolkit. Science shows us that by giving ourselves unconditional kindness and support, by accepting ourselves and our imperfections, we foster a greater life-happiness, contentment and ability to thrive.
3. Why do you think so many people struggle with being self-compassionate?
For some, we have become used to the inner voice that criticises us. There can be a harshness to the way we treat ourselves, reserved entirely for our inner world. We can come to believe that criticising ourselves, being mean to ourselves, not allowing ourselves to soften etc is the best way to motivate ourselves or ‘get things done’. When we are habitually dealing with ourselves in that way it can be very difficult to summon forth that inner nurturer instead. For others, it might be that self-compassion is seen as soft or weak. Or that the concept of self-compassion is misunderstood.
4. Will self-compassion help stop those loud self-critical thoughts?
Self-criticism is a huge topic in so much of my self-compassion work. Our inner critic gets a bad rap! However it’s important to recognise that the inner critic has developed in us as a kind of protector, in the sense that self-criticism is born of a function to keep us safe, ‘perfect’ or accepted so we can survive. It’s just that for many of us the volume of our inner critic is too high and it wields a great deal of power. For example, so many of us habitually launch into self-criticism when we slip up, evaluating and judging ourselves so negatively, which can be tricky to deal with for some, and cycle into chronic guilt, shame, disconnection and a feeling of not being good enough for others.
One thing is for sure, punishing ourselves with painful self-talk is not helpful. Beating ourselves up really chips away at our self-worth and self-value. It can paralyse us.
Self-compassion helps us manage our relationship with our inner critic in a healthy and supportive way. It’s not about trying to stop the loud self-critical thoughts or silence the inner critic – because we can’t stop our thinking. However, we can find freedom with it. This means developing the skill to notice the inner critic (mindful awareness) and relate to it differently (take kind action) – which can mean softening towards it, creating space around it, offering ourselves something kinder, understanding it better.
It’s not an easy journey. It takes commitment and repetition of various mindful self-compassion practices that I teach. But starting with a willingness to explore our inner world is key to taking first steps on a healthy path towards relating to ourselves with more kindness and understanding and taming the overly-aggressive critic within.
5. By being self-compassionate, are we really just letting ourselves off the hook when we do something wrong?
I’m so glad you asked this! There are a lot of myths and misconceptions around self-compassion. We can be so scathing about being kind to ourselves, or feel that offering ourselves our support and understanding when we have done something wrong equates to indulging ourselves, wallowing in our misfortune or even copping out altogether. Yet coupled with mindful awareness, self-compassion is a transformative and valuable resource which, with practice and repetition, plays a really powerful role in our healing.
This is because self-compassion, truly turning towards ourselves in the midst of our difficulty, takes courage. Because opening our hearts to our vulnerability, struggle and suffering is not avoiding it or bypassing it. When things feel bleak, when we’ve failed, when we’re hurting, being with what’s there and engaging in self-compassion is brave.
I like to think of it this way … when we’re self-compassionate we are befriending ourselves, becoming our inner ally. And an ally doesn’t desert us, or avoid us. An ally kindly holds us accountable when necessary, an ally kindly motivates and encourages. An ally wants the best for us. An ally wants us to get unstuck, to take action, to gain perspective – this is definitely not a “woe is me” or “letting myself off the hook” attitude.
So, as much as self-compassion gently soothes us and provides us with a source of comfort when we need it, it also means we learn to stand in own power, set boundaries, address our unmet needs, meet our potential, feel safe to honestly admit our mistakes and take action on the best way forwards.
6. What are some really simple, manageable steps to start practicing self-compassion in our everyday lives and what are some of your favourite ways to practice self-compassion?
One of the key early practices I teach is Kristin Neff’s “self-compassion break”. You can bring to mind a difficult situation, or use these three steps when you notice you’re struggling with something.
- Stop and steady yourself and acknowledge how you’re feeling – explore the feeling in both your mind and body. This is mindfulness. You are observing, and noticing. Say to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering”. Or you can use your own phrase, “This is so hard’, “This is stressful”, “I’m hurting right now”.
- Next, say to yourself, “Suffering is a part of life”. Or try, “I’m not alone’, “Others can feel this way”. You are reminding yourself of our shared human experience. Perhaps place a hand on your heart and feel the gentle supportive touch there.
- Now say to yourself, “May I be kind to myself” or “What words do I need to hear right now to show myself kindness?”. These might be “may I be strong”, “may I be accepting of myself”, “may I be gentle with myself”. Explore what you need, and see what comes up as you rest in stillness for a few moments.
This seems pretty simple and straightforward, yet it is a powerful practice. It can really help us cultivate both our mindful awareness of how we are feeling, and our self-compassionate response to what is. It has helped me enormously as a mum. I’ve stood in my kitchen oh so many times in the fray and found this quick practice such a valuable reset button. I’m sure other mums can relate!
To finish, these words I wrote for an Instagram post are now words I have on my desktop,
“Cultivating self-compassion is learning to hold challenging feelings about ourselves and our experience in our own embrace.”
And that seems a fitting way to sum things up. As mums we embrace so many others. Learning to embrace ourselves, all of ourselves, is so important. It benefits us. And our children.
Thank you so much for asking me to contribute here. Such an honour and I’m very grateful.
About Catherine Kell
Catherine is a Self-Compassion and Mindfulness Teacher, Compassion Cultivation Mentor and Founder of The Self-Compassion Community through which she provides 1-to-1 and group online sessions. Previously, Catherine led specialist therapeutic support and learning sessions for mothers based around cultivating self-compassion and strengthening the parent-child connection in parenting. She has also passionately brought her skillset to schools and has taught scores of children as a Trained Teacher with the Mindfulness in Schools Project in the UK.