People aren’t perfect. This fact might be simple enough to understand, but it can be harder to apply to our own internal dialogue. Even if we accept that everyone makes mistakes, we may still find ourselves becoming our own worst critics when faced with our flaws — and our kids aren’t immune from the same struggles. Self-criticism actually doesn’t help us learn from our mistakes or overcome failure — it can just lead to feelings of worthlessness and even depression. So, how can we avoid this cycle and raise our kids to be resilient instead of self-critical?
Enter: self-compassion. At its core, self-compassion is the idea that we should treat ourselves with the same kindness and understanding that we give to others. Most of us would probably agree that it’s easy to show empathy and compassion for the people we care about. When our friends mess up, fail at something, or hurt our feelings, we might try to comfort them, forgive them, and ultimately still see them as people we love — a love that includes their flaws. It can be surprisingly difficult, however, to show ourselves the same grace.
The idea of self-compassion originates from Buddhism, and is illustrated in the Metta Bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, which first invites those practicing to first cultivate feelings of love and compassion towards all beings, starting with themselves. Through her personal experience with Buddhist psychology, Dr. Kristen Neff discovered the concept of self-compassion and became a trailblazer of self-compassion research. Today, Dr. Neff is one of the leading self-compassion researchers, largely responsible for defining the topic in the field of psychology and testing it empirically.
As defined by Dr. Neff, self-compassion has 3 main principles:
- Self-kindness vs. Self-Judgment. When we inevitably make mistakes or have regrets, we should approach ourselves with understanding instead of looking to attack ourselves for having messed up.
- Common humanity vs. Isolation. Humans are imperfect beings, and messing up is just a common part of life. When you find yourself faced with your own mistakes, remember that they’re a shared experience that everyone can relate to. You’re not the only person with regrets, and you shouldn’t treat yourself as a solitary villain because of your flaws.
- Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. Mindfulness is all about being aware of your thoughts and feelings, without judging them or trying to push them away. In order to be self-compassionate, you have to let yourself feel your negative emotions, but you also have to be careful to balance them. It’s important not to suppress any feelings of pain or guilt, but to also avoid letting yourself get caught up in ruminating or over-exaggerating your flaws.
Even though we may criticize ourselves thinking it’s the best way to hold ourselves accountable for a mistake we’ve made, self-criticism doesn’t lead to the kind of positive changes we want to bring about. In fact, it may even lead to us avoiding confronting ourselves altogether. If we’re unable to accept our actions without attacking ourselves, we may internalize these feelings or push them away.
Instead, practicing self-compassion allows us to:
- Confront and face our negative emotions — our guilt for having hurt someone we love, or our disappointment at having not achieved a goal — by using mindfulness.
- Recognize that we aren’t “bad” people because we messed up — mistakes are a common part of being human.
- Show ourselves kindness, accept ourselves wholly, and move forward from our challenges.
Self-compassion allows us to look at ourselves honestly, learn and grow from our mistakes, and persevere after facing adversity.
For a long time, psychologists and mental health professionals have considered self-esteem to be a key factor in preventing the kind of negative self-image that’s associated with self-criticism. However, self-esteem has a few key drawbacks that self-compassion actually accounts for instead.
Self-esteem often relies on us comparing ourselves to other people. In order to feel like we’re special or above average, we have to feel like we’re doing something better than our peers. This kind of thinking can be linked to narcissism, and is likely to actually let us down: the truth is, there’s always going to be someone we can point to who’s “better” than us if we’re seeking one-dimensional validation of success.
As Dr, Neff explains:
“Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. And right after the crash comes a pendulum swing to despair as we realize that — however much we’d like to — we can’t always blame our problems on someone else. We can’t always feel special and above average.”
Self-esteem is based around what Dr. Neff calls “performance goals,” while self-compassion involves “learning goals.” These learning goals prioritize satisfaction with ourselves, instead of focusing on what other people think of us in order to judge our progress.
Teaching kids how to practice self-compassion has a host of benefits: it helps them become resilient, motivates them to try new things without fear of failure, and gives them the courage to bounce back from failure and keep going even after a let-down. Here are a few ways that you can begin teaching your kids how to practice self-compassion:
- Practice forgiveness. If your child makes a mistake, like knocking over a mug full of coffee or breaking a favorite toy, emphasize that it’s okay to make mistakes. This doesn’t mean evading responsibility for cleaning any messes, but it teaches your child that it’s normal to slip up sometimes!
- Help get them out of their comfort zone. Encourage your kids to try new things — even if they aren’t good at them at first! Motivating your kids to explore new hobbies and interests, and emphasizing that it’s normal to take some time to learn and develop new skills, is a great way to teach them to value personal growth instead of outside validation.
- Encourage them to step in a friend’s shoes. If you find your kids being overly self-critical, ask them: “What would you say to a friend in the same situation?” Help them think through how they might show kindness and understanding to another person, and then encourage them to apply the same thinking to themselves.
- Reassess unrealistic expectations. If your kids are disappointed in a personal failure, help them understand that they may be holding themselves to a higher standard than is achievable. For example, is your child upset about a test score at school? Ask them if they think their friends, classmates, or even their role models and people they admire, have never, ever received a bad grade. Probably not, right? So, why should they expect themselves to never, ever mess up, either?
- Keep plenty of positive mantras on hand. Teach your kids a couple of phrases they can fall back on when they’re feeling let down. Examples of some positive self-talk you can help them practice using are:
- “Everyone makes mistakes! I don’t have to be perfect.”
- “I may not be great at this — yet! But I’m having fun learning. I’m going to keep trying!”
- “It’s okay to mess up. I’m still awesome!”
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Dr. Kristen Neff is an Associate Professor of Education Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a leading self-compassion researcher, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and Co-Founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. Her official website can be found at: https://self-compassion.org/
“The Power of Self-Compassion” by Jason March for Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_power_of_self_compassion
“Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem” by Kristen Neff for Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/try_selfcompassion/
“5 Tips for Teaching Your Kids Self-Compassion” by Margarita Tartakovsky for PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-tips-for-teaching-your-kids-self-compassion#1
Self-compassion for children: 3–8 years” from raisingchildren.net.au. https://raisingchildren.net.au/school-age/health-daily-care/mental-health/self-compassion-young-children