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Compassion for Self and Others

Marcey Shapiro, MD

Most of us have compassion for others. We can also be compassionate to ourselves. “Always be kind to yourself ” is a sentence I have written on patient instruction sheets for as long as I have had a medical practice. Throughout the years, I have noticed that many people are distinctly unkind to themselves. They judge themselves harshly and even ridicule or belittle themselves when they do not live up to impossible standards. They are their own worst critics. Many good, kind people have told me horrible things about themselves, such as that they are “total failures” or they “have no self-discipline.” Ironically, these same people are also good-hearted, and they would never treat others the way they treat themselves. They would never say to others the unkind things they say to themselves.

Anxious persons can be particularly self-critical, self-limiting, and harsh. When we are cruel to ourselves, we dig ourselves further into a hole. As a result, anxiety increases. This may ring true for you. If it does, notice that the more the self-taunting voice belittles, the more your anxiety level rises. Eventually, as we step back and don the perspective of our inner observer, we realize that negative self-judgment is a learned, damaging, and totally useless habit.

It can be helpful to regard the self-deprecating inner voice as one would a small child who does not know better. There is an art to learning gentleness with ourselves. Think about how you would treat a baby, a kitten, a puppy, or a tiny bird. Most of us would treat them gently, indulgently, and patiently.

We deserve this for ourselves too. You are that baby, that small child, that little bird. A self-critical inner voice is often formed early in childhood as a protective response to uncontrollable life stressors. Many of us are unaware that we have a choice whether to identify with that fearful self-deprecating voice or with the quiet, peaceful, loving, inner wisdom. One way to unhook from our self-critical thoughts is by a dialogue of kindness with them. Instead of mentally arguing with them, we can appreciate and thank them for their past contributions to our well-being. Let yourself understand that you developed these habits of thought by trying to protect a younger, more vulnerable part of yourself. Explain to the thoughts that you no longer need or want this type of protection.

We can feel our emotions compassionately. We can be kind to ourselves no matter what we are feeling. Even difficult emotions are never a justification for beating ourselves up. Compassion also means letting go of negative self-talk about negative self-talk. Saying things like “Why is this taking so long?” “I am just not getting this,” or “I am no good at this” are all more ways to dig the emotional hole deeper.

Look at your beliefs about yourself. Allow yourself to shift those that no longer serve you. Another way you can let them drop is by deliberately telling new, kinder stories. For example, you might replace self-defeating thoughts with milder ones. Here are some examples: “I will get better at this eventually,” “I really want to feel better, and I know that my feelings will improve,” “It is okay if it takes a while,” “It is okay for me to develop my skills at self- soothing and shifting my feelings,” “Improvement will take as long as it takes, and I know it will be helpful if I can be as nice as possible to myself along my journey.”

Excerpted from Freedom From Anxiety: A Holistic Approach to Emotional Well Being by Marcey Shapiro, MD, published by North Atlantic Books 1/14/14 , copyright © 2014 by Marcey Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

Stay tuned for more thoughts from Marcey Shapiro, MD,  on “Transforming Health” and Heart Centered Living

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