4 Reasons Why Self-Compassion is Really, Really Important
By Laurel Swenson, MC, RCC
Self-compassion may sound kind of fluffy when you first hear about it, but there are so many good reasons to cultivate it.
Here are just four of the many possible reasons self-compassion is important to our well-being:
1. Humans have an evolutionarily necessary bias for negativity. Self-compassion can counter-balance this bias.
I am spending a little more time on this one because it really sets the foundation for why self-compassion is important.
What do I mean by this? When we evolved, it was important for our ancestors to remember bad experiences in order to learn from them and avoid danger. So when a poisonous snake slithered near us in the grass, we needed to remember what that was like for the next time. It might save us to live another day! So remembering bad experiences was critically important to our survival. Good experiences, on the other hand, did not need to remembered quite as vividly because they did not save our lives in the same way as danger memories did. Have you ever noticed that good memories can have a dreamy, imprecise quality? Whereas bad ones tend to be pretty darn crisp and detailed. Our evolution wired in how important bad experiences are to our survival. Fast forward to now, and we don’t typically have quite as many life threats to contend with — but we still are wired to focus on the negative more than the positive. The bad is still more important to our survival than the good, but our brains and bodies don’t know that we are not in as much danger as we once were. Our brains do not care that we’d actually prefer to focus on positive experiences, it just wants us to survive at all costs.
(The negativity bias written about in many places, but my current fave is Dr. Louis Cozolino’s book Why Therapy Works )
What does this have to do with self compassion? Well, if you pay close attention, you most likely will notice just how negative the ever-present, chattering voice inside your head is. We all have ongoing chatter in our minds, and, if you are like most humans, this chatter tends toward being rather negative. You might notice something like this: “Look at this, why did I do that? Why can’t I get it right? I’m so slow today. See how they looked at me? They are clearly annoyed. I really suck at this.” etc. Our negativity bias influences how we talk to ourselves. By increasing your self-compassion you can actively shift this negative inner voice to a more encouraging and supportive voice.
Which brings me to the second reason self-compassion is important:
2. It is more helpful to have a supportive inner voice than a critical inner voice.
An encouraging and supportive inner voice creates more confidence, contentedness, motivation, and calmness. A harsh inner voice can trigger a downward spiral of emotion without us even realizing that our own inner voice is making our experience worse. The harsh inner voice can take a tough situation — which happens all the time, because: life — and make it even worse by how we talk about it to ourselves.
Guess what? We can change our inner voice. In contrast to the negative voice written earlier, you can choose cultivate a voice that sounds more like this: “Darn it, I made an error. Too bad, but that kind of thing happens. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. I sure learned from this one. I will try harder next time, and I know more now. I am working hard on this, and I am improving every day.” Nourishing a more encouraging way of talking to yourself can help you feel more lighthearted, encouraging to others, and energized to tackle your challenges. (Drawn from Kristen Neff’s work)
And this has positive health implications…
3. Being self-compassionate is better for our health and well-being.
There have been numerous psychology studies that have demonstrated that a lack of self-compassion correlates with poorer health, more mental health struggles, and a weaker immune system. People who tend toward being self-compassionate are typically more socially connected to others, happier, feel more fulfilled, and have better health. You can think of self-compassion as a super-vitamin!
Another factor in good health and happiness are healthy, positive relationships. Self-compassion improves these too…
4. If we do not love ourselves, it is difficult to have healthy relationships.
When we do not have a sense of care for ourselves, we cannot show up in our relationships in ways that help them be healthy. We need to value ourselves if we are to stand up for what we believe is important in our significant relationships. If we can’t, we may end up staying in relationships that are unfair, unbalanced, or even abusive. Being able to ask for what you want and don’t want in a relationship requires that you feel respect for yourself and your needs (and the other person’s too, of course). Cultivating self-compassion can contribute to enjoying better, more fulfilling, mutually supportive relationships.
We will only benefit from being enthusiastic supporters of our selves as we can continue to learn, grow, and reach for our dreams. (There are even many more reasons to cultivate self-compassion not covered here.) Being unenthusiastic, self-denigrating, or downright mean toward ourselves has no upside. Being actively more compassionate towards ourselves can help us to recognize our unhelpful tendencies.
Laurel Swenson, MC, RCC, CPF, is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and member of the BCACC working in Downtown Vancouver. She works with clients struggling with anxiety, depression, perfectionism, creative blocks, childhood emotional neglect, and with queer folks. Her goal is to help people feel better, live more fully, and feel more empowered to take care of their own mental wellness. Find her at mindsightcounselling.ca.