I heard once that “acceptance is the answer to all of your problems”. The part of me that loves to solve problems immediately thought “bah! that’s too simple!”. But the more I have thought about this statement the more true it seems. Not always, obviously. If you are in an abusive relationship I would not recommend acceptance. If your boss is sexually harassing you, acceptance is not the answer. But if you find yourself plagued with envy of your best friend’s six pack abs, or new car, or you feel frustrated by your shyness or freckles, or your partner’s annoying habit of leaving wet towels on the floor, then maybe acceptance IS the answer to all of your problems.
More and more I feel like life is moving at an unrealistic pace. We all have full inboxes, full voicemail systems, endless to-do lists and FOMO on a nonstop basis. Life is not slowing down for us. Which means for many of us (me for sure!) we are getting farther and farther behind on some things. We are, I would argue, having to come to grips with the fact that keeping up on all of our goals may prove to be impossible.
So how do you square yourself to feelings of personal failure? When you feel that you are not measuring up? I recently found a wonderful video that talks about just that. Kristen Neff’s Youtube talk on Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem was really on point about how we treat ourselves in the face of adversity and disappointment. She is a researcher right here in Austin, Texas who started off looking at self-esteem. What she quickly realized was that self-esteem was impacted by self-compassion. So she started looking at that. I love that she shared personal experiences (divorce, being a mom of an Autistic-spectrum kid) that caused her to want to figure out how to feel OK about herself when she felt that life was throwing her curve balls.
Dr. Neff points out something that I found particularly helpful– that when we attack ourselves, criticize ourselves and entertain negative thoughts about ourselves we are actually triggering the fight or flight response/stress response in our bodies. This causes the release of large amounts of cortisol, which is very damaging to our bodies. In fact, prolonged/repeated exposure to cortisol can cause depression. So now on top of feeling disappointed in yourself and judging yourself harshly you are debilitated by depression and not in any position to make any positive changes!
Dr. Neff explains different ways that we can be self-compassionate which avoids this pitfall of depression. Below are two graphics that I found that cover her main points. In general you can think of self-compassion as treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend in the same situation. If you are berating yourself for being late to deliver a work project think about what you would tell a good friend in the same situation. If there is a difference in how you would talk to your friend versus how you talk to yourself then you may need to work on self-compassion!
One of the most interesting tips she gives on self-compassion is that we can actually soothe ourselves chemically by stimulating our own oxytocin release. Oxytocin is the chemical that mothers release when nursing babies, or birthing babies, and when any of us receive loving touch. It’s the hormone that is meant to bond us and calm us. It helps promote a state of relaxation and even sleep. Dr. Neff explains that you can release your own oxytocin by touching yourself in a caring manner. Like giving yourself a hug and rubbing your arms. Corny, I know. And super awkward if anyone were to see you! However, science is science. If you can touch yourself lovingly (in your car in the parking lot? in the bathroom stall at work?) you can actually calm yourself down by administering your own oxytocin. Dr. Neff also recommends talking to yourself in a soothing voice (again here I recommend privacy!). Humans are also wired to respond to what is called “vocal prosody” or that sing-songy voice we use with babies and cute little animals. So saying something to yourself like “I know I’m feeling really crummy right now but this will pass” in a soothing voice can actually cause your nervous system to settle down and help you feel better. Again contrast this to the way many of us tend to speak to ourselves which goes something like “Geez I can’t believe how stupid I was! What a screw-up!”. As they say in the computer world, “garbage in, garbage out”. If you talk to yourself in a negative manner you are going to cause negative chemical reactions in your brain and nervous system. If you talk to yourself lovingly you will release chemicals that will calm and sooth you and help you access the more complex (and capable!) parts of your brain.
Dr. Neff has a website where you can take an online quiz to check yourself on six different aspects of self compassion: self-kindness, self-judgement, common humanity, isolation mindfulness and over-identification with your feelings. I found this to be very useful in identifying which areas I may need to work on to become more self-compassionate.
If you are the sort of person that tends to be hard on yourself, has low self-esteem or sets potentially unrealistic standards for yourself you may benefit from looking into self-compassion. The research is quite strong that increasing self-compassion can help with self-esteem as well as depression and happiness.
As always if you find this post useful please “like” it below or “tweet” about it to help others find these resources. And if you are unfamiliar with mindfulness you may want to look for some resources (online or locally where you are) to help you learn this incredibly powerful tool for being in the present moment, even if that moment is cruddy. While it sounds weird being fully present in an uncomfortable moment actually turns out better in the long run.
Wishing you self-compassion, self-esteem and a fulfilling sense of connectedness to all people,