Author’s note: Well-meaning, genuinely interested friends have frequently asked me, “So, Matt, what’s your dissertation about?” Despite my attempts to avoid answering this question, people are too full of kindness not to keep asking. So, I present to you: a topic related to my dissertation.
I hate participation trophies. We’ve all heard of our society’s latest ruse to keep everyone feeling special and unique. Flowing out of the self-esteem movement of the 90s and 00s, the idea of rewarding all children equally is based on the idea that children should not feel inferior to one another in any capacity. What this ends up communicating is that it’s an inherently bad thing to feel sad and disappointed. Instead of letting kids experience the heartbreak of losing, parents and coaches rush to stymie tears—because let’s face it, smiles are easier to deal with. Pain and sadness become things we help kids avoid, rather than experiences we equip them to learn from and grow through.
This gets at the fundamental problem of self-esteem: it relies on comparing your own self and circumstances to people around you in order to rid yourself of unpleasant feelings. You boost your own esteem by locating someone worse off, or by entering into an equal playing field. But that’s not the world we actually inhabit, so why do we continue to encourage kids to engage in these comparisons? And why are we so terrified of negative emotions?
In response to this growing movement, Dr. Kristin Neff developed a new construct, based on general principles of Buddhism, that describes the way we as humans can respond to ourselves when experiencing pain or enduring a failure. She called it self-compassion, and it has since begun to take the world of clinical psychology by storm. Some people use self-compassion through meditative practices. Others develop short reminders in their heads to pull out when they’re feeling down. The three elements of self-compassion, and their self-critical counterparts, give a clearer picture of the process.
Self-Kindness versus Self-Judgment
It’s strikingly counterintuitive to be kind to ourselves. Often, we trick ourselves into thinking we’re being kind, when in actuality we’re gorging on a Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle style Treat yo Self day. Self-kindness is recognizing the mistake or identifying the source of our pain and choosing to be kind toward ourselves. We don’t rush to blame ourselves, or wallow in accentuated self-pity. If we mess up, we own it, but we don’t berate ourselves. Self-judgment, then, is when we fall into patterns of feeling wholly responsible for our circumstances. Picture Dobby the elf from Harry Potter beating himself repeatedly with the nearest piece of kitchen equipment to atone for his mistake.
Dr. Neff describes self-kindness as extending the same grace and understanding to yourself that you would to a close friend. If your best friend was late to pick you up, you probably wouldn’t assail them with vulgarities and question their usefulness as a human being. But how often do we do that to ourselves when we stumble, or forget, or simply space out?
Common Humanity versus Isolation
Another element of self-compassion is recognizing that everyone participates in the human condition, and that none of us is immune to the shortcomings that inevitably accompany our imperfections. Whereas self-esteem is about locating someone worse off than you to eliminate your pain, common humanity is a thought process that focuses on the reality of shared failures and shared triumphs that we all undergo as humans.
Isolation, then, is believing that we are the only ones going through certain circumstances. “I’m the only one at my job stupid enough to mess up this project.” “Why am I the only one who can’t seem to get this right?” “Nobody else knows what I’m going through.” When we become immersed in these types of thoughts, our mind creates barriers to seeking support and engaging with our communities.
Mindfulness versus Over-Identification
Ah, yes, mindfulness. Some may read this and giggle with delight, thinking fondly of their yoga classes or their morning meditations next to a waterfall. Others may scowl and feel like gagging, wanting nothing to do with this hippy Buddhist nonsense. Both reactions are understandable, but for those who are in the gagging category, please endure a bit longer. In the context of self-compassion, mindfulness is an awareness of painful feelings and a recognition that pain does not last forever. Its counterpart, over-identification, is when we integrate our failures and pain into permanent, essential aspects of our identity.
A mindful response to failure is saying, “I messed that up, and I feel really embarrassed.” An over-identified response would be to say, “I am such a failure. I’m a miserable loser.” Neither of these approaches avoid the painful feeling or try to eliminate it, but the mindful approach helps us stay aware that our identities are not rooted in the mistakes we make. It may seem like a silly thing, re-phrasing our thoughts, but it makes a world of difference.
I have begun to cope with hardship much more effectively since incorporating self-compassion into my life. Particularly as a follower of Christ, I try to view it as an exercise in accepting the compassion and grace God extends to his children. There are still times where I mentally mash myself with a frying pan, Dobby-style, but I keep moving ahead, trying to approach pain with compassion rather than judgment.
Matt Coldagelli (’14) majored in English writing and psychology at Calvin. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. He watches an absurd amount of TV and is a certified craft beer snob. Matt lives with his lovely wife in Oak Park, IL.