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The Power of Self-Compassion

The Power of Self-Compassion

If you’ve ever experienced mom or dad guilt, you know that feeling that you’re just not doing enough. That you’re failing as a parent or doing things that will “mess up your child”.

It’s the shoulds, supposed to’s and other kids are that loop in your mind in the middle of the night, while you’re on social media or running late to fetch your kids.

The expectations and contradictions you experience as a parent are endless.

Keep a clean house, but make sure you have bonding time with your kids.

Limit screen time, but give them time for educational apps.

Pack them healthy lunches, but make sure you get enough ‘you’ time too.

It’s impossible to keep up with.

And when your child forgets their project at home, or you see an Instagram post of your friend doing arts and crafts with her teens while yours are parked in front of Netflix, like many parents, you might open a can of whoop-ass on yourself.

“I’m a terrible parent.”

“I’m failing my kids.”

“I’m a bad mom.”

Or worse yet, you dish yourself an internal beating that you would never in a million years unleash on anyone else in the same position. Particularly if you’re a parent to a struggling teen. Not only does this cause chronic feelings of failure, stress, low self-worth, guilt and shame (1) it can also teach your teen a dangerous lesson: that self-worth is dependent on things going right (2).

That’s because the way you relate to yourself in moments of struggle matters.

And the irony is that we have a perfectly easy time being compassionate towards others, but less so with ourselves.

As the Buddha said:

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.”

This might seem a little woo-woo, but there are 20 years worth of research on self-compassion to back this up. People who are self-compassionate have better physical and mental health, more motivation, higher levels of confidence and accountability, better relationships and greater happiness and satisfaction (1).

And nowhere is this more applicable than in parenting.

Being self-compassionate allows you to fill up your cup so you’re better able to give without burning out, becoming resentful, anxious or depressed.

 

It also models a healthy way of being with yourself in moments of difficulty for your teen, so that they can tap into an unconditional source of self-worth that’ll boost their levels of confidence, motivation, physical health and accountability.

 

What is self-compassion?

 

According to Dr Kristin Neff, pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, the best way to think of self-compassion is treating yourself like you would a friend who was having a hard time. Even if your friend messed up or was feeling inadequate.

Self-compassion has 3 core elements: self-kindness, common humanity (the recognition that everyone makes mistakes and feels pain), and mindfulness.

Imagine you meet a friend for coffee and she’s feeling terrible after a blow-out with her teenage daughter.

“It’s my fault she’s so rude. I spoiled her way too much. And I should never have reacted that way. I’m a terrible mother. I feel like I’m failing my child,” she says, fighting back tears.

You raise your eyebrows and say, “You really are a terrible mother. It’s probably because you’re so weak. Nobody’s teens behave that way. You must be doing it wrong.”

Yeah, right.

You’d never dream of speaking to a friend this way. And yet, it’s probably the words you’d use on yourself, or much worse.

Instead, you’d say something like, “I’m so sorry, this sounds so hard. Remember, we all go through this as parents. And the teen years can be so difficult to deal with. I’m always here for you, how can I help?”

With self-compassion, you can learn to speak to yourself in the same way, filling up your reserves of strength and love instead of depleting them.

“When we are mindful of our struggles, and respond to ourselves with compassion, kindness, and support in times of difficulty, things start to change. We can learn to embrace ourselves and our lives, despite inner and outer imperfections, and provide ourselves with the strength needed to thrive.”

Dr Kristin Neff

 

Why self-compassion works better than self-criticism

Isn’t it weird that we applaud compassion as an admirable quality, but have a harder time seeing self-compassion the same way? It can feel almost irresponsible, as if we’re being self-indulgent or self-pitying.

But self-compassion is actually the antidote to self-pity (3). Instead of saying “poor me”, it says “life is hard for everyone”. In fact, people who score higher in self-compassion actually have higher levels of accountability and ruminate less, which is why they also have better mental health.

And if you’re worried that self-compassion will turn you into a couch potato who raises their kids on Netflix and takeaways, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that. According to Neff, the number 1 block people have towards self-compassion is the belief that it will undermine motivation to do and be better.

But a growing body of research shows that not only is this untrue, it’s actually the exact opposite! Self-compassion is a much bigger motivating force than self-punishment (3) In fact, studies show that self-criticism leads to a decrease in willpower and motivation (4)

Why?

Because being more accepting of ourselves in difficult or painful moments means that it’s safer to admit when we’ve failed or made a mistake. Failure doesn’t feel as scary or debilitating. And we’re more likely to try again or keep persevering. When we’re not diminishing ourselves all the time, our confidence is given space to grow (1) (Who would’ve thought, right?)

This matters because you can increase your own peace of mind in your parenting, enhance your wellbeing and shed the guilt. But your child will also learn how to develop more helpful ways of being with themselves by watching you do this. Win-win!

As Neff says, what you cultivate inside, you are communicating to your child at all times. When they see you criticizing yourself, they’re learning: This is a good way to be with myself (2).

This makes their wellbeing contingent on things going well. Because when things go badly, like getting a poor grade or being broken up with, the response they’ve learned is to cut themselves down. This ultimately breaks down their self-worth and their overall resilience and coping abilities (2).

This isn’t to make you feel guilty, but to say that in this case, what’s good for you is actually good (and important!) for them too. You get to fill your cup up with love and compassion, and show them that they deserve their own love and compassion too.

 

Wrapping Up

The moral of the story? Wanting to be the best parent you can, and help your child be the best they can be, is at the heart of any good parent.

But you’re not helping anyone by criticizing yourself, least of all your child.

If anything, being more supportive, loving and kind towards yourself can not only alleviate your own suffering, but help your child learn to self-regulate in healthy ways too.

Next time you’re having a tough time, hit pause and try speaking to yourself as you would a friend using the 3 core elements of self-compassion:

1. Acknowledge that you’re having a difficult moment (mindfulness)

2. Remember that if you’re having this problem, it’s likely you’re not alone and that others have too (common humanity)

3. Use some supportive and kind words (self-kindness)

And remember, no one is more deserving of your own kindness than you.

References

1. Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2019). The Transformative Power of Mindful Self-Compassion. Mindful. https://www.mindful.org/the-transformative-effects-of-mindful-self-compassion/#

2. The Nourished Child. (2022, September 22). Meet Your Superpower: Self-Compassion [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9C1phWCrSQ

3. Neff, K. (2015). The Five Myths of Self-Compassion. The Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_five_myths_of_self_compassion

4. McGonigal, K. (2013). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Avery

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