One of the more enduring messages over 2020 has been the need to be kinder to ourselves and invest more time in self-care. But why do we need to be told to do this, to have to be convinced of the benefits – why can being kind to ourselves be so difficult?
From a young age, we’re conditioned by messages that are intended to help us but instead damage our self-image and sense of worth. A young boy who cries might be told, “Toughen up! Do you want people to think you’re a girl?” A girl might be compelled to change how she looks, or else people will think she’s “ugly”. Any child who appears different to others is likely to be neglected in several ways.
Over time, we become addicted to self-criticism because we’ve learned that the only way to fit in and be "normal" is to not accept who we are and to keep striving to become who others think we should be.
And as we internalise that message of “not good enough”, we come to dislike parts of ourselves, inside and out. We use the same kind of harsh criticism to self-judge as others used to judge us. The “not good enough” story continues because we continue to write the pages. As a result, self-compassion feels uneasy. Offering kindness to ourselves becomes a weakness or something undeserved.
Rather than letting go, genuine self-compassion begins by looking at the uncomfortable parts of ourselves, the parts we don’t like, and learning to relate to them in a way we’d wished they’d been nurtured by our parents and caregivers when we were younger.
Even toward the inner critic, self-compassion recognises that it’s only trying to protect us and to keep us safe, even if it tries a little too hard. As we nurture that and other difficult aspects of ourselves like a patient, loving friend, over time we begin to make space for all the parts that make up who we are. Once we open up to them, they become less aggressive and help us to put an end to our conditioned “not good enough” story.
All of us have parts of ourselves that we dislike. Parts of us can feel worthless, unlovable, angry, or resentful. We might also be struggling to deny parts of our identity in order to fit in with social norms and so we suppress aspects of ourselves to maintain an acceptable persona.
While being hard on ourselves might serve some benefit in the short-term, in the long run it can lead to considerable emotional costs, leaving us feeling exhausted, lost, and disorientated.
Opening up to and accepting difficult parts of who we are can be challenging, and it’s useful to sit with whatever we try to suppress and see what kind of message it has for us.
For example, if you’re someone who privately carries a lot of anger, what might be behind that anger? The emotion itself is doing its best to protect and keep you safe, so it can be worthwhile reflecting on what needs attending to within yourself.
Rather than suppressing the anger, you might reflect, “I notice this steady hum of anger is always with me. What are you protecting me from? Why are you here?” It can feel silly to have this silent conversation, but it helps to bring that part of you into focus so you can begin to understand the purpose it serves.
Some people might realise after a while that the anger is protecting them from unresolved pain, grief, or sadness. All the while they feel anger toward others and themselves, it saves them from having to look at their underlying pain; it’s like an emotional distraction.
We can see that those different parts of us are simply doing their jobs – they’re trying to keep us safe. But much like an injured animal who growls to keep helpful strangers at bay, when we struggle with our emotions, the underlying issues can deepen and cause even more pain.
Self-judgement doesn’t improve who we are; research into self-compassion is clear that it can actually make our personal and professional lives worse. The antidote, as counterintuitive as it might seem, is to respond to ourselves with patience, understanding and kindness.
Imagine if you spent your life digging your sharp nails into your forearm. Keeping yourself in pain, how might you treat yourself and others? You’d likely be impatient, less kind and loving, not because you’re unkind but because you’ve been in pain for so long. How could you be expected to behave any other way?
When we open up to the difficult parts of ourselves, when we become our own safe space, we start to recognise that unhelpful messages we received in the past needn’t be the story we live by today. And by befriending the whole of who we are, we begin to dissolve the tension, the anger, and the anxieties that have held us captive for so long.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.