Liking yourself more, or at least putting yourself down less, is possible to do. Journalist Catelijne Elzes learns how you can go easy on yourself through trial and error.
All in all, I think I’m a pretty friendly person. I’m open and even known to be funny. But if something goes wrong, if I make a mistake or clash with someone, this tough side of me comes out, this strict schoolteacher who disapproves and would love to rap me on the knuckles with her ruler. She’s not capable of saying anything nice. This is a shame, because it throws me off balance, and makes me unsure which way to turn or what to do. Besides, everyone makes mistakes, right?
American writer and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin in the US Kristin Neff has been researching self-compassion (literally, having compassion for yourself) for years. One of her studies has shown that for an amazing 78 percent of people, it’s easier to be kind and understanding to someone other than themselves when they are experiencing difficulties. Only two percent of people have more compassion for themselves than for others and twenty percent show the same amount of compassion for themselves as they do for others.
Dutch mindfulness and self-compassion trainer Marlou Kleve sees this a lot during her training courses: people who are too hard on themselves if, in their eyes, they have failed. She feels it is time to fight back. According to Kleve, self-compassion is nothing more than being kind to yourself, particularly when you are going through something difficult, and supporting yourself when necessary.
To show how hard we can sometimes be on ourselves, Kleve often has her students do the following exercise: Imagine that a good friend of yours is struggling with something. They have forgotten an important work appointment, for example. What would you say or do? Write this down in a few sentences, and then describe how you would react if something similar happened to you.
“The difference between what people tell themselves and what they say to someone else is so completely different,” Kleve says. “To a good friend, they would say something along these lines: ‘Oh, that’s a shame. It happens though; we’ve all done it’. They usually give a tip on how to prevent something like this from happening again in the future. But when it comes to themselves, they see a loser. They put themselves down, really beat themselves up about it. ‘How could you be so stupid?’ And they are still angry at themselves hours later.
“This critical voice is not all bad; it can also serve a purpose,” Kleve explains. “It’s in our genes. It is trying to protect you, ensure that you survive. Missing an important meeting can be an intimidating experience. If it happens too often, you could lose your job. In order to ensure that you never forget a meeting again, you give yourself a lashing. The critical voice wants to protect you, but is often far from constructive. Repetitive, harsh self-criticism can lead to less self-confidence and even to a fear of failure.
The compassion in our responses to good friends who make a mistake works better in the long run. It’s just harder to do ourselves the same courtesy. We are trapped in an instinctive response to danger, we get stressed and start lashing out. At times like this, it helps to imagine how a good friend would respond. And then to tell yourself what they would tell you.”
- The full story ‘Going easy on yourself: how do you do it?’ can be found in Issue 24.
Text Catelijne Elzes Photography ©Milles Studio/Stocksy United and ©Rachel Bellinsky/Stocksy United