Junior year of college, I battled depression. Although I was on medication, I walked through life clouded in a gray hue that left me feeling hopeless. I was extremely unhappy with who I was, and being clinically diagnosed as “depressed” made me feel worthless.
I began to blame myself, saying that I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t pretty enough or kind enough or good at anything I did. My worrisome feelings and self-hate would build up so much adrenaline in my body that I’d explode into multiple anxiety attacks a week. But it wasn’t until I found myself having a full-blown panic attack, sobbing on the bathroom floor, my fists balled up tightly, and my chest heaving up and down, unable to breathe, that I realized I needed help. Through seeing a therapist, I discovered the driving force behind my unhappiness. She showed me that I was being bullied by a mean girl.
That bully was me.
Negative self-criticisms ran through my mind often. “You’re not good at anything, so why are you even applying for this job?” “That person is probably much better at relationships than you are!” I know that if I were to say these to my best friend, it would damage our relationship. Yet so many of us speak these same negative statements to ourselves.
Dr. Abby Shapiro, my clinical psychologist, pointed out that this process is the leading cause of all the unhappy feelings that come with depression. The hallmark of depression, Dr. Shapiro said, are thoughts of self-hatred. But I realized that if I could change this one thought process, I might be able to heal my depression and bring happiness back into my life.
Growing up, we’re taught to treat others the way we want to be treated. I wanted to treat others with kindness, mercy, graciousness, and patience. But I needed this to be flipped around: “Do unto yourself as you would do unto others. If you’re kind to others, then do that to yourself,” Dr. Shapiro reminded me. The problem was that I didn’t know how to treat myself the way I wanted to treat others. Here is some of what I learned to heal.
Friendship Is the Key to Being Kind to Yourself
Many people struggle with the false belief that self-compassion is correlated to selfishness. But self-compassion isn’t about building your ego and always judging yourself positively. Rather it’s about recognizing who we are and tending to our authentic selves—including our flaws—with kindness.
We all have bad days. But what takes a toll on our mental and emotional health is the little nagging voice in our head that says, “You messed up. You failed. You let other people down. You let me down.” Instead, try reassuring yourself the way you would if a friend told you she had a bad day. You might tell her, “That’s OK. We’ve all been there,” or “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. How can I make it better?”
Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean you’re indulging your pride or being self-serving. It’s a healthy habit that needs constant practice, just like eating properly and getting enough sleep.
Nobody’s Perfect . . . Nope, Not Even You
University of Texas Associate Professor Dr. Kristin Neff has studied self-compassion, and in her TED talk, she breaks self-compassion down into three major categories: kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Dr. Neff’s second component of self-compassion involves knowing that you are human and embracing that reality. Self-compassion entails understanding that we are imperfect, that we are unique from other people, and that we have been given different gifts and talents.
Aiming for perfection will only bring personal destruction when we fail. When we mess something up, we may perceive that we are abnormal for failing. However, we would be abnormal not to fail. All humans do sometimes. Embracing ourselves with compassion in these moments is where we truly succeed in personal growth.
Listen to Yourself
Learning how to practice self-compassion includes knowing where your faults lie, which means recognizing where your own thoughts may be causing you pain. Being mindful means actively listening to how you speak to yourself. You may been speaking harshly or unkindly to yourself for so long that you may not even realize you’re doing it. Dr. Shapiro suggests a tangible solution. “If you can put those feelings into words, then you’re on the road to recognizing that what you say to yourself and how you think about yourself affects you so tremendously.”
When we have hurtful thoughts, our bodies perceive them as threats to our well-being. According to Dr. Neff, our body then prepares itself for the fight-or-flight response, which skyrockets adrenaline and cortisol levels in our body. Many times, our body’s method of coping with the situation is to shut down, which leads to depression. On the flip side, our body positively responds to a nurturing voice. Being self-compassionate results in you feeling comforted and safe with yourself. If you’re wondering where you can improve, take this quiz on self-compassion to find out potential areas for growth.
Whether you’re battling depression or looking to improve your personal happiness, learning to be self-compassionate will only give you more self-confidence and strength. Changing this thought process though is a constant journey that takes conscious effort and time. When you finally get it down, you’ll want to try new things even if you may fail because you’ll know that your biggest supporter is always with you.
Photo Credit: Eleanor Rask Photography