The kids are getting ready to head back to school. It's an exciting time of year, but it can also be a stressful time of year for parents and kids alike. If you're looking for a way to ease the pressure and dial down the anxiety that you and your child may be feeling, you may want to tap into the far-reaching benefits of practicing self-compassion.
What is self-compassion?
Not quite sure what I'm talking about when I refer to self-compassion? Here's a quick crash course.
Self-compassion is compassion directed toward the self. It's about being at least as kind to yourself as you are to other people, as opposed to being harsher, more critical, or less kind.
Self-compassion is deeply rooted in a feeling of connectedness to other people. It encourages you to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that everyone goes through times of struggle. It's not just you.
Self-compassion is action-oriented. It's about wanting good things to happen for yourself and being willing to take action to make those good things happen. For most of us, that means learning how to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, as opposed to feeling like we need to run away from those feelings. As psychotherapist Jennifer Brighton explained when I interviewed her for my recent CBC Radio parenting column on self-compassion, "The essence of being self-compassionate always comes down to, 'I am suffering and I'm willing to see that -- and now how do I get through this?'" So self-compassion is about really listening to yourself when you're having a bad day, just as you would really listen to a friend who was struggling. And then it's simply a matter of allowing that "conversation" with yourself to guide you in deciding what action you should take to make things better.
How is self-compassion different from self-esteem?
Self-compassion is rooted in feelings of self-acceptance whereas self-esteem is much more dependent on achievement. You feel great about yourself when you're achieving all kinds of fabulous things and terrible about yourself when you're not.
People whose self-worth is tied to self-esteem tend to crave a lot of external validation. They need other people to tell them that they're worthwhile human beings as opposed to finding those feelings of worthiness within themselves.
Self-esteem is also related to feelings of competition. You're constantly striving to be the best -- and you're not afraid to do so at the expense of other people, if that's the price you have to pay to get ahead. This can leave you feeling separate from other people (because you see those other people as potential competitors as opposed to potential friends) and it can even promote unkind or even bullying behaviours.
So, as you can see, self-compassion and self-esteem are as different as night and day, both in terms of how they leave you feeling about yourself and how they encourage you to treat other people.
How can kids benefit from learning about self-compassion?
Teaching kids about self-compassion can help to counter deep-rooted cultural messages that encourage perfectionism and fuel feelings of anxiety. This is important because there's growing evidence that perfectionism is on the rise. A recent study of over 41,000 Canadian, American, and British college students concluded that, "Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others." That's pretty much the recipe for great personal unhappiness, poor mental health, and poor relationships with others.
As parents, we need to seize the opportunity to help our kids find a happier, healthier path through life -- a path that includes teaching kids about self-compassion.
First of all, self-compassion encourages emotional stability. Your child doesn't have to repeatedly demonstrate her worthiness by constantly chasing after achievement after achievement. She understands that she is lovable and worthy just by virtue of being herself. Teaching your child about self-compassion means giving your child the precious gift of self-acceptance.
Secondly, self-compassion encourages resilience. Your child is better able to bounce back from life's road bumps. Instead of beating himself up when he fails a math test, he is able to acknowledge what's happened and come up with strategies for dealing with the underlying problem (like maybe getting some extra help from his math teacher). And because he's able to make the shift into action mode, he's less likely to find himself stuck in a downward spiral of negative emotions -- emotions that might otherwise interfere with his efforts resolve the problem of that failed math test.
Finally, self-compassion encourages learning and growth. Your child isn't afraid to take chances or to try new things because his feelings of self-worth aren't narrowly anchored in any single achievement. Who cares if he tries that new thing and falls flat on his face? He's still a 100% worthy and lovable human being and he knows it.
How can parents benefit from practicing self-compassion?
Self-compassion changes the entire landscape of parenting. It makes everything so much less stressful.
For starters, it makes parenting easier. Parenting is hard enough without having a self-critical voice in your head constantly telling you that "you're doing it all wrong." Self-compassion helps to silence that voice.
Self-compassion also helps you to become a kinder and a more effective parent. You find it easier to acknowledge and accept your child's struggles and shortcomings, just as you've learned to accept your own. Instead of asking yourself to be perfect and insisting that your child be perfect, too, you recognize that you're both doing the best that you can with the skills and abilities that you have right now -- and that you can build on those skills and abilities over time. It's about learning and growing together.
How to teach your kids (and yourself!) about self-compassion
The best way to teach kids about self-compassion is by modelling this skill for them. Our kids are always paying attention to what we do and what we say -- so let your child catch you being kind to yourself the next time you forget an appointment, misplace your car keys, or spill a cup of coffee on the couch.
It's also helpful to talk about self-compassion as a family. When you're watching a movie together, highlight situations where characters are treating themselves with extreme kindness or extreme unkindness. Talk about what motivates these types of behaviour and what the real-life fallout can be of being perpetually mean to yourself.
If you have a child who is extremely self-critical, help your child to change the channel in her brain from self-criticism to self-compassion. The next time you catch her saying unkind things about herself, encourage her to think about what she would say to a friend who was dealing with the very same situation. Then encourage her to say those same kinds of things to herself.
At first, practicing self-compassion may feel awkward and unnatural — and you might even find yourself getting a little discouraged. What you don’t want to do is to beat yourself up for not getting this self-compassion thing right — or at least not right away. It takes practice to master any new skill, and self-compassion is no exception. the first step is to simply pay attention to the voice in your head — to notice how often that voice is critical as opposed to kind. Then, when you catch yourself saying something harsh or judgmental to yourself, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself questions like, “Is that really true? Am I actually the world’s worst klutz, just because I spilled a drink on the couch?” and “Would I say something that harsh and judgmental to a coworker or my best friend, if they were the one who spilled the drink on the couch?” (Hopefully, the answer is no!)
If you can remind yourself of the far-reaching benefits to both yourself and your child of mastering this skill together, you’ll be more motivated to keep trying to treat yourselves (and one another) with greater compassion.
You’ll want to do the hard but life-affirming work of journeying to that happier, healthier place as a family.
Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.