There’s a reality that, until somewhat recently, seemed to elude me whenever I would find myself wandering down one particular path of mental resistance or another. It took the form of a self-critic, providing a relentless running commentary. The countless occasions that I’d beaten myself over the head trying to discover the root cause or source of the opposition would oftentimes take days to figure out.
But it was right under my nose the whole time. I was my own worst enemy.
Throughout my teens and 20s, from all outward appearances, I presented myself as a happy-go-lucky, free-wheeling jock; yet beneath the surface laid a self-imposed taskmaster, in constant search of perfection. The byproduct would ultimately evolve into a disciplined, well-respected leadership quality that served its purpose throughout my successful career in several business endeavors and, more recently, in the field of education.
The downside, of course, was an endless supply of unnecessary pressure put upon myself and unfortunately, those closest to me. As journalist Kristin Wong stated in a recent piece featured in the New York Times, “We live in a culture that reveres self-confidence and self-assuredness, but as it turns out, there may be a better approach to success and personal development: self-compassion.”
Unlike self-esteem, which is an evaluation or judgment based upon one’s comparison to others (often requiring a sustainable source to maintain its integrity depending upon the person), self-compassion is more or less a way of relating to ourselves in a kinder manner. Whereas self-esteem is wrapped up in how much we truly like ourselves, self-compassion embraces the concept of liking who we are, warts and all.
For me, a good deal of the obstructions along my path have either been self-imposed or based upon absolutes that I’ve pre-constructed, allowing myself little wiggle room to maneuver, if any at all.
What typically would begin as a single impediment subsequently led to countless others, amplifying the effect exponentially.
Best-selling author and Buddhist meditation leader Sharon Salzberg recently explained to host Tim Ferriss on his self-titled podcast: “Rather than spending the next year and a half castigating oneself, ask ‘what do I need to do to come back into balance?’
She concludes by offering that, whatever one needs to do, “do it with more kindness.”
As is the case with most friction that we encounter, approaching one’s “inner” conflict from a mindfulness perspective will undoubtedly add clarity to the situation. For many, there is a necessary healing process that needs to take place in order for self-kindness to emerge. Traumatic, life-altering events or other intense experiences may have left indelible impressions that require mending.
Dr. Kristin Neff, author and psychology professor at the University of Texas, in an interview with Olga Khazan for The Atlantic magazine concludes: “One component of self-compassion is self-kindness. It entails the recognition of common humanity – the understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives.”
She continues by stating that where we run into trouble is thinking otherwise: “Sometimes when we fail, we react as if something has gone wrong – that this shouldn’t be happening, as if everyone else in the world were living perfectly happy, unproblematic lives. Everyone struggles; it’s what it means to be human.”
Neff, an early pioneer in the field, along with her colleague Dr. Chris Germer, were some of the first academicians to define and address the topic decades ago. The pair since have created a multi-step program to effectually teach individuals self-compassion skills for coping with everyday life.
Giving ourselves the attention that we so readily offer to others without hesitation is an irony not to be lost here. How often have we volunteered our precious free time to a colleague, friend or family member in their time of need (rightfully so), only to delay or altogether forgo the same consideration to ourselves?