The 15-year-old figure skater saw her Olympic dreams crushed into the cold ice before millions. After years of grueling practice and the sacrificing of a childhood to become perhaps the world’s best, she had failed. Not once, not twice, but multiple times during her final performance for the gold.
What greeted her upon completion was not a compassionate hug or a word of consolation, but a demand.
“Explain it to me, why?” the coach demanded.
In five words the coach seemed to ask:
Why couldn’t you just ignore the pressure?
Why weren’t you perfect?
Why did you have to be a human?
Even without the sound, we might have recognized the tone as familiar. For many of us it was first heard in a vulnerable childhood moment.
Quit your crying.
It’s your own fault.
What’s wrong with you?
You should be ashamed.
It is a voice that many of us continue to hear, not from the outside but rather from inside our own head. Self-compassion is often offered up as the antidote for that inner critic we live with. Yet while
compassion for kindergarteners in Ukraine where Putin’s bombs bombard classrooms may come easily, calling forth that same quality for ourselves can feel like we need to channel Mother Theresa. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t done that lately.
For those of us prone to being petty and critical and full of judgment, self-compassion feels like just too big of a leap when complaining about pains in our body, poor results on a project, or an imperfect performance of anything.
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff reminds us that failures and shortcomings are inevitable. Logically we know this, yet the cultures in which we grew up and in which we live can make us believe we ought to be perfect, and anything less should be a source of shame.
So what to do when self-compassion seems reserved for those meditating on monastery cushions or sitting on mountaintops? Like anything we want to get better at, we start where we are and we start small. We can start with kindness. Self-kindness.
Kindness is not cruel. We stop calling ourselves names (“failure,” “jerk”, and “idiot: come to mind) or declaring ourselves to be solely selfish, lazy, or ungrateful.
Kindness does not ignore. We don’t tell ourselves to “get over” my feelings and “move on”. We allow the experience of the feeling be it betrayal, being a disappointment, or abandonment.
Kindness recognizes that the suffering of others does not diminish our own.
Kindness is shown. We don’t disregard or discount the need for rest, comfort, or a good cry. We ask for and allow care.
If we open our hearts to remembering that in our lowest moments there is a child inside longing for a bit of kindness, we might be able to take one small step away from cruelty and one step closer to self-compassion.
How does your inner critic talk to you?
Do you treat yourself like a loving friend would?
How might you treat yourself with kindness today?