Why Is Self-Compassion So Tough?

Why Is Self-Compassion So Tough by Cathy Jacob at CathyJacob.com

Photo Credit: Congerdesign from Pixabay

The truth about the hard work of loving yourself.

If you’d rather listen than read, check out Season 2, episode 9 of my podcast, Sound Insight.

Sometimes when yet another article extolling the benefits of self-compassion comes across my desk, I have this strange dual reaction. Part of me cringes and the other part has to suppress the urge to roll my eyes.

What is that?

What kind of coach rolls her eyes at the notion that most of us need to be more compassionate with ourselves?

Before I answer that, let me share a story.

I had been working with a leader for a few years. Despite a tough start in life, Rachel (not her real name) managed to build a successful career and rise through the ranks of a competitive, results-driven organization. She was a strong leader. Her colleagues respected her and described her as having exceedingly high standards, driven, and fair. She got results.

At this point in our work together, however, she was crashing against a wall of intractable challenges – at work, with her physical health, and in life in general. She showed classic signs of burnout. It was as if the things that had propelled her forward were now creating serious obstacles in every aspect of her life. One of those things was a demanding, harsh, and uncompromising inner critic.

The coaching was tough during that period. We’d been struggling for several weeks. During the previous session, I conducted a visualization with her, asking her to imagine herself 20 years from now in an ideal future state. Being a naturally creative person, she responded well to the exercise. She created a vivid and memorable picture of this future self in her mind. 

On this day, after a particularly brutal week, she began our session with a litany of her personal shortcomings as a leader. Her frustration, impatience, and disgust with herself crackled in the air between us. I asked her to take a few deep breaths and, somewhat impatiently, she complied. When I sensed that the emotional charge was dissipating, I asked her to close her eyes and conjure up the image of her future self she had created in our last session. I asked her to embody that image, to try to imagine that she already was that person. She struggled at first but then she got there. I asked her to bring to mind a picture of her current self as if she was looking at her from the future.

I asked, “As you look at this woman in front of you, what do you see?”

Silence. And then the look on her face softened. “I see someone who is hurting.”

More silence. And then “I see someone who is trying very hard, who has all the right intentions, and who is just doing the best she can.”

More silence. It was as if we were in a bubble together looking at something intimate and precious.

Then I asked, “What words of comfort and compassion can you offer this woman who is doing the very best she can?”

Slowly, there was a shift in her whole being. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

The bearing down energy was gone and a gentler energy emerged full of compassion, relief, and tears.

She told me much later, that for her, this was the first moment of true and sustained self-compassion she had ever experienced.

What I would witness over the next several months was the beginning of a longer-term transformation and a significant developmental leap for this leader. Slowly it changed her way of being at work and her impact on her colleagues. She was still a strong leader, but she suffered less. She was lighter, more comfortable in her own skin. She showed more compassion toward others. She and her team continued to produce outstanding results, arguably even better ones. Adjectives like “tough but fair” were replaced with “motivating and inspiring.”

The hard work of rewiring your self-talk.

Strangely, this story illustrates what is at the heart of the eye-rolling for me.

First, there is the concept of self-compassion, which is easy to write about and sounds very… well… nice. There’s the research pointing to the correlation between self-compassion, happiness, and effective leadership, which I’m grateful for, but doesn’t get us any closer to the actual practice.

The concept of self-compassion on inspirational posters doesn’t acknowledge the hard work of putting compassion at the heart of your inner conversation.

Particularly for those who have deeply embedded and harsh inner critics.

The exercise Rachel and I did together was not my first attempt to introduce the need for Rachel to be more compassionate with herself. I’d been suggesting that for months. But all the gentle admonitions to those harsh and judgmental voices in her head were not going to reverse a lifetime of self-recrimination. Rachel didn’t suddenly let go of a life-long habit of brutal self-judgment and uncompromising demands on herself because I told her it would make her happier.

And if I’m to be completely honest with you, neither did her coach. What Rachel and I had in common was that self-judgment and the inner drill sergeant were deeply ingrained and critical drivers of our success.

That experience did not only change her; it changed me.

Coaching sessions like the one with Rachel, where the transformative experience unfolds in the session itself, are rare. Often the transformation is much more subtle and takes place over a long period of time. Often the insight lands long after the coach has left the building. The session was powerful, but the more lasting change came after months of work on Rachel’s part. That session didn’t create the change, it nudged her onto a new path. It offered her something better than an explanation or persuasive argument; it offered her a real experience of what it is like to be on the receiving end of self-compassion and a pathway to its practice.

Here are some hard lessons I’ve learned about the practice of self-compassion.

You can’t bully or guilt your way to self-compassion.

I once had a coach who was also a Buddhist meditation teacher. He said: “Imagine two dogs – a big dog and a little dog – guarding a door. You are behind the door. The dogs are there to protect you. The little dog is yapping. The noise is shrill, constant, relentless. It’s telling you to watch out. It’s telling you there’s danger. It’s telling you all the things that are wrong with you. That you’re going to fail. That the world is coming to an end. It’s nipping at you, telling you that if you are to prevent disaster, you need to work harder, to be better.

The big dog is quiet, occasionally letting out a low growl. Then, every once in a while, the big dog erupts ferociously and barks at the little dog, “Shut up with your constant yapping. You’re too hard on her. Leave her alone, you little jerk! Show some compassion!”

Here’s the thing, they are both dogs that you have created. The real you is behind the door.

That voice in your head that chastises you for being so hard on yourself. That tells you, you suck at self-compassion and that you’ll never be happy. That voice is just another dog.

And here’s the really tricky thing. The dogs need compassion too. The road to self compassion does not begin by declaring war on your inner critic. Your inner critic is just a guard dog that needs love, compassion, and reassurance that you’re going to be okay. When you start fighting with that voice, you amplify it. When you fight with the yapper, you are simply placing another dog at the door. Further, you are turning against a part of yourself. And all parts of yourself need compassion.

Self-compassion is compassion for the dogs AND for the beautiful human behind the door.

Self-compassion is not passive or self-indulgent.

If you look up the definition of compassion, it’s feeling another person’s pain and wanting to take steps to help relieve their suffering. The word compassion is derived from Latin and means “to suffer together.”

Often relieving suffering involves confronting something uncomfortable, hearing a hard truth, or accepting responsibility for our unintended impact.

Self-compassion does not let you off the hook if you are behaving badly. In fact, the more you practice self-compassion, the easier it is for you to hear feedback and to take responsibility for your actions. Because your inner dialogue is affirming, your sense of self-worth is not so threatened when you fail.

Self-compassion is not about overlooking your shortcomings, it’s about loving you as you are, including your shortcomings.

Further, self-compassion is not curling into a fetal position in your favorite blankie and disconnecting from the world. (Okay, maybe it is, sometimes).

Mostly it’s loving and active. It asks something of you. It believes in you. It champions you and gives you helpful feedback when you come up short.

Self-compassion takes conscious, intentional, deliberate practice. It’s hard work.

Hearing you should be more self-compassionate, is not helpful. It’s just pressure.

All the research I could share, all the benefits I could articulate, all the subtle ways I could point out you’d be happier if you could just love yourself, are not going to convince you to be more self-compassionate. Because you and I don’t need convincing. We already know this.

But knowing it and accessing it are not the same. Many of us have a fear of being self-indulgent, of losing our hard-won gains by letting down our guard. For many, our self-worth feels contingent on being smart or competent or collegial or accomplished. For others, the concept of self-compassion is a handy shield from facing the hard things we need to face.

We need to experiment. We need to experience the difference. We need to build trust over time that our success does not hinge on being relentless task masters. We need to feel what it is like to know that there is an inner voice and wisdom we can trust.

What happens when you stop and listen for the voice behind the door?

This morning I caught my inner voice being encouraging.

For the last few days, I’d been struggling with this post. The little dog was yapping and indulging in a lot of unhelpful questions about whether the world really needs yet another blog post on this topic. But this morning, as I was brewing my morning coffee, I caught myself saying things like, “I think you’re onto something here. This has promise. Just trust yourself. You can do this.”

I stopped in “mid-atta girl” and thought, hmmm. Where did that voice come from? Cool.

I’ve stopped (mostly) telling my clients to be more self-compassionate.

Instead, I try to summon the voice behind the door. I ask…

  • What would be most helpful right now?
  • If your best friend in the whole world was going through this, what would you say?
  • What would be the most loving, encouraging, and honest thing you could say or do right now?

These are also the questions I ask myself.

Ironically, I’ve learned that being self-compassionate is like being a good coach to yourself. Sometimes that requires deep listening and curiosity. Sometimes it’s letting you feel what you feel. Sometimes it’s offering comfort. Or holding up a mirror and lovingly asking you to face a hard truth.

And sometimes, its simply coming out from behind the door, patting the dogs on the head and saying, “It’s going to be okay. We’ve got this!”

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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