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The Outside World and Compassion for Yourself

26 August 2020 by Valérie Courchesne, Doctor of Psychology

BEING YOUR OWN BEST FRIEND

When we refer to the concept of beauty, we usually think of a positive judgment, a value that we assign to things around us (objects, scenery, people, bodies, colours). However, beauty can be considered differently. Let’s take a moment to better understand how to appreciate who we are.

First, let’s think about what leads us to deem something beautiful. One of the activities that the brain does extremely effectively is categorizing what surrounds us. This is why we recognize, for example, a table in a few milliseconds as soon as we notice a flat surface placed on four legs, whether this is our first contact with this particular model or not. This continuous categorization performed by the brain also leads us to make judgments about our environment, which allows us to adapt to it. This is how we distinguish between what is dangerous and what is safe, what is good and what is bad, and…what is beautiful and what is ugly!

In and of themselves, these categorizations are therefore perfectly useful for our survival. However, these days, these automatic judgments are greatly influenced by social norms and beauty standards. In particular, we tend to use this ability of the brain in the most uncompromising way…toward ourselves: “It was stupid to do that,” “I don’t have any talent,” “This part of my body is ugly,” etc.

The social environment also highly values the act of constantly seeking to improve ourselves and striving for perfection, and the desire for “more,” in a very broad sense, is highly cultivated. The spiral of being too hard on ourselves is thereby initiated…

Why be so critical of ourselves? Many people believe that self-criticism is an engine to evolve and change and that, without it, we don’t improve. However, that’s not the case; quite the contrary! Let’s consider a parent who is excessively critical of their child. Will this child become more perfect than the others? Probably not! On the contrary: there is a good chance that they will develop an extremely fragile sense of self-esteem and constant anxiety over not living up to expectations. The same principle applies to the self-critic.

By having a fair and nuanced view of our strengths and weaknesses and—above all—by considering them to be human, we can truly seek to improve ourselves and have enough self-confidence to achieve this.

How do we get away from this automatic judgment? First, we need to be able to notice it, then practice non-judgment. One of the key ingredients to being non-judgmental is cultivating compassion for yourself—that is, by trying to be as understanding and tolerant toward yourself as you would be toward a friend, for example.

When we experience compassion for someone else, we notice their suffering and we are sensitive to it. We consider what the person is experiencing as a painful moment but normal in the human experience, and we don’t judge them for feeling that way. Most often, we try to take care of this person during this challenging time. Compassion for yourself simply involves applying these same principles to your own experiences.

Secondly, when we have a problem, instead of criticizing ourselves, we have to take a moment to pause. This break allows us to better analyze what we are experiencing and remind ourselves that what we are feeling is completely normal. There is just one step to take to be kind to ourselves, like we would with someone else. That is to welcome our feelings, reactions, and behaviours with empathy and kindness to become our own best friend.

Three techniques to practice compassion for yourself and appreciate your inner beauty

TECHNIQUE NO. 1

Practise treating yourself like you would treat a friend. Think of a time when a loved one went through a difficult time and felt inadequate. Write down how you behaved or spoke to your loved one in that situation. Then think of a difficult situation for you. Write down what you typically say or do to yourself in this type of situation. Compare the two lists and take the time to think about the differences that you observe. What causes them? How do you feel in these two situations? What would change if you treated yourself like you treat your loved ones?

TECHNIQUE NO. 2

Use touch. This may seem strange, but in the context of comfort, our reflex is often to put our hand on the other person’s, for example. This gesture is very appropriate because, when touched like this, the brain releases oxytocin, a substance that has a soothing effect on the body and even reduces the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. You can trigger this soothing biological reaction simply by stroking your arm or leg or hugging yourself with your arms crossed, for example.

TECHNIQUE NO. 3

Adopt behaviours to take care of yourself. The first recommended technique is to draw up a list of things that you do to help a friend who isn’t doing well. There was probably something on there about doing an activity with that person to lift their spirits, no? You would find time for that friend, so do the same for yourself!

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