“You’re such an idiot.”
How many of us tell ourselves things like this every day? We are more likely to “beat ourselves up” than to verbally abuse someone else, including those we dislike. Studies confirm the ill effects of self-directed hate speech, such as depression, anxiety, and stress. In extreme cases, some people choose to kill themselves, though they would never conceive of murdering another person. Why is our relationship with our self so different from our relationships with everyone else?
Various psychotherapy traditions have terms for the habit of being hard on ourselves: Freudians call it a harsh “superego,” or that inner critic of our thoughts and actions; cognitive therapists call it “negative self-talk.”
Whatever label we give these statements, I hear them repeatedly in my clinical work. In general, however, the level of self-loathing never matches the true qualities of the person before me, or the way the person’s friends and family view the individual.
In my clinical work, I’ve found that people often struggle with directing compassion toward themselves. Sometimes the mistreatment of oneself is more subtle, manifested as pervasive neglect. A person who habitually brightens others’ days may never consider ways to do the same for himself or herself. I treated a woman who was incredibly generous in all her relationships. In working to find ways for the woman to be good to herself, I noted how much care she always showed for her niece. She replied with a straight face, “Yes, but that’s someone I love.” The unspoken message in her statement hit me right in the gut: “I do not love myself.”
As inhabitants of our own minds and bodies, we have a unique relationship with our self. For example, I’m the only person who is with myself every day and knows my every thought and action. Each of us can choose to use that relationship for good, treating ourselves with kindness, respecting our basic human dignity, determining what our needs are, and trying to meet them.
All forms of psychological treatments address the relationship we have with our self—Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is probably the most explicit about building a sense of self-acceptance and care. Paul Gilbert, who developed CFT, defines compassion as “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it.” According to Gilbert, compassion can flow not only between people but from “I” to “me.”
A traditional meditation (click here for an example) encourages us to send a sense of loving kindness to others in our lives, including a very close other and, progressively, to people we aren’t as close to, or are harder to love. The practice also involves sending love to ourselves. For many, though, it’s easier to send warm wishes even to a person they’re at odds with, rather than themselves. It’s not unusual for a person to experience literal physical discomfort and feel “squirmy” at the idea of sending loving regards to oneself, indicating how much more accustomed we are to doing the opposite.
It is possible to change. Here are 3 ways to break the habit of self- abusing:
- Notice how we treat ourselves. The first step to move toward greater self-compassion is explore: What words and tone do we use when we talk to ourselves? Are we kind to ourselves in the way we arrange our days?
- Foster the relationship with ourselves that we want. Being mindful of how we treat ourselves, and asking the question: Would we treat a friend, or a child, the way we treat ourselves?
- Extend kindness and compassion to ourselves, perhaps with the help of someone who knows us well like a friend, family member, or therapist.
Self-compassion should never be thought of as an exercise in selfishness. In fact, it tends to help our relationships with others; at least one study has suggested that relationship quality is more closely related to self-compassion than to self-esteem.
Everyone wins when we do unto ourselves as we would have others do unto us.