How can we be more compassionate with ourselves?

When everything has to be better, faster and more beautiful, our life in its current state will actually never seem good enough. How can we be kinder to ourselves? Belgian doctor and mindfulness trainer David Dewulf has been studying this question for years. 

What is self-compassion?
“The best way for me to explain is by comparing self-compassion to self-esteem. For a long time, we thought it important to improve our self-esteem. There were even plenty of books on how to boost it. I read them too, but for some reason I always felt a stubborn resistance to their message. I didn’t really know why, because self-esteem was presented as a good thing, and said to be important for our wellbeing. Then, when I started reading about self-compassion, I understood my resistance. Self-esteem means: I am good if I am first or the most beautiful or the smartest or best in class.

This might work for a while, but sooner or later someone else is going to catch up, and your self-esteem will collapse. It’s only ever possible for one person to be number one, so you end up being each other’s rivals. And then there’s self-compassion. While self-esteem says, ‘I’m okay when I’m okay’, self-compassion says ‘I’m okay even when I’m not okay’. That’s the point. Will I allow myself to make mistakes, to be vulnerable? Will I allow myself to have needs, to admit that I need recognition? Can I be okay just as I am, without always having to do something?”

How can we learn to practice self-compassion?
“We try to use self-compassion training to pierce through the illusion of thinking in terms of if/then: If I achieve this, then I will be happy. During the training, we often do an exercise in which you have to list ten things you feel grateful for. Participants usually find this very difficult; ten seems like a lot to them. But once they get into it, they realize it’s actually not that much. Because we have an infinite number of things to be grateful for.

Sometimes I ask who’s grateful for hot water running from a tap in their home today. No one is, because you don’t feel grateful for that until you’ve gone without it for three days. The problem starts with the mentality that it’s normal. We can list so many things: I’m grateful that this cup of tea is here, I’m grateful that my car is starting or I’m grateful to be alive. It’s about learning to see everything that is already there.”

  • You can read more about being compassionate with yourself in Issue 20.

Interview Sjoukje van de Kolk Hand-lettering Valerie McKeehan