Recently, a beautiful woman in the More to Mum community asked me if you could ever give yourself too much self-compassion. She wondered if there was a point where you just had to take accountability for what you’ve done and do better.
As I listened to her describe her situation, I could feel the emotion behind the question and I know she is not the only mother who has asked herself this or silenced that self-compassionate voice in favour of her inner critic because she felt she deserved it or needed it in order to improve.
When do we just stop telling ourselves that our mistakes are understandable, and just hold ourselves accountable?
When does self-compassion become letting ourselves off the hook?
I felt this was such an important topic to address and so I’ve dedicated this blog article to exploring this question.
What is self-compassion?
Firstly, let’s get really clear on what self-compassion is.
Kristin Neff, researcher and leading expert on self-compassion, explains that self-compassion has 3 elements:
- Self-kindness – Being warm and understanding towards yourself, including refraining from criticising yourself.
- Recognising your own humanity – Understanding that suffering and imperfection are part of the human experience. It is not happening because there is something wrong with you and you are not alone in it. We all experience it.
- Mindful Awareness – Seeing our pain as it is, rather than ignoring, minimising or exaggerating it.
It can be helpful to think about self-compassion as the kindness and understanding we would extend to others who are suffering. Women generally find it much easier to be compassionate towards others than towards themselves.
Self-compassion avoids judging and criticising and involves a desire to lessen your pain (even if you can’t really).
And lastly, self-compassion is focused on making sure you’re happy and healthy in the long run. So, it’s not about engaging in activities that make you feel better in the moment but aren’t actually good for you, like drinking too much alcohol or making consistently unhealthy diet choices.
To me, self-compassion feels like a warm hug full of empathy and respect for yourself and your situation. It allows you to first feel the pain and then work to alleviate it.
Doesn’t criticism help us improve?
Most of us have been taught that we need criticism to be motivated to improve or stay on track. You probably experienced a lot of criticism early in your life as it was a common strategy used in parenting and education, as well as guilt and shame. It makes sense then, that we think this is an effective way to deal with our mistakes in adulthood.
In her book “The Willpower Instinct”, Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal summarises the research available, saying that “study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.”
Self-criticism demoralises us, presenting a threat to our safety-seeking brain. It is like putting brakes on as we focus our attention on how bad we are and often end up procrastinating or envisaging an inevitable negative outcome.
Research shows that the more people criticise themselves, the slower they progress over time and the less likely they are to achieve their goals.
On the other hand, the deliberate use of self-compassion has been shown to improve our motivation, performance and resilience.
Research has repeatedly shown that people who are self-compassionate are more optimistic, playful and accepting of their strengths and weaknesses. They judge themselves less and make healthier life choices. It’s also linked to being more caring in relationships.
Is self-compassion just making excuses?
When we’ve been conditioned to criticise and judge ourselves, self-compassion can feel like making excuses or letting ourselves off the hook but there are some key differences.
If we are making excuses or letting ourselves off the hook, we are less likely to be taking accountability for our actions, or the impact that they have caused. We may even blame others, minimise or dismiss the impact or feel there is no need to repair the situation.
Often, making excuses or letting ourselves off the hook is a form of self-protection. If we do not admit we made a mistake, we do not have to feel bad or guilty about it.
This is not the same as self-compassion.
We can be self-compassionate AND take full responsibility for our actions and their impact.
We can understand what factors contributed to us making that mistake AND still want to do better and repair where necessary.
We can be kind to ourselves when we struggle to change our behaviour (which is very normal) AND still keep working to improve.
Just because it takes time to change behaviours and achieve our goals, doesn’t mean that self-compassion isn’t working. Progress isn’t linear and we will make mistakes along the way. Sometimes we will feel like we are going backward when going backward is sometimes part of going forward.
Self-compassion isn’t taking the easy way out
Self-compassion might seem like taking the easy way out, but if you’ve ever tried to be more self-compassionate, you’ll know it’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, it’s really quite difficult at first for many people. It can feel more painful initially because you aren’t pushing the pain away. You’re accepting and making space for it and then supporting yourself to deal with it.
Self-compassion allows us to see our imperfections for what they are. We don’t jump to shaming ourselves and making ourselves a bad person, and we don’t gloss over the things we didn’t do well. We let ourselves see the reality.
Self-compassion allows us to fully appreciate the impact of our actions and then decide what action is needed to repair the situation. Apologising, admitting our mistakes, and fixing problems we have caused or contributed to takes courage and vulnerability!
Self-compassion is showing up for yourself as a friend and ally in difficult times. Those difficult times will include times when you would rather run away or bury your head in the sand, so you don’t have to deal with the discomfort. But self-compassion is about creating safety for ourselves to admit our mistakes and imperfections, soothing ourselves, meeting our unmet needs and taking action to move forward. I don’t think this is the easiest path, but it’s the most powerful and loving one!
So, can you ever give yourself too much self-compassion?
What do you think, lovely? Is it possible to give yourself too much self-compassion?
I would say no.
If self-compassion enables us to take accountability and repair, and it motivates us to improve while building our resilience and meeting our needs, then I think the more we can give ourselves the better!
Self-compassion is one of the best tools we have to support ourselves through difficult times and it has been proven time and time again to have only positive effects on our wellbeing.