February. The month of pink and red, hearts, valentines, tiny sugar candies, and love. It would seem to be an understandable month to write about relationships and love languages and all those great ooey-gooey pleasant feelings. But, I’m not. Instead, we’re going to focus on being kind and loving toward ourselves.
Gifted individuals tend to arrive in this world with an innate drive and perfectionism. Their minds are often capable of envisioning perfection and they’re not satisfied until the real world mirrors those perfect images. When our less than perfect world, work, or behaviors fall short, gifted individuals can become extremely self-critical. Additionally, gifted individuals tend to have high expectations put on them and tend to receive an abundance of praise for accomplishments and achievements. We now know that praising the achievements can actually be quite detrimental as identity and worth become psychologically correlated. That’s all fine and good when someone is demonstrating high achievement, not so great the other 90% of the time when mistakes are made, failures are experienced, or mediocrity wins.
Which brings me back to Self-compassion. Self-compassion is the antidote to the poisonous self-esteem movement and our achievement-focused world. Self-compassion has been shown to be effective at decreasing anxiety, increasing motivation, improving mood, developing healthy life-style habits, and maintaining a stable sense of self-worth (see the work of Dr. Kristin Neff for the research, www.self-compassion.org).
According to Merriam-Webster, compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” We see someone suffering and we want to help. Self-compassion, then, is sympathetic awareness of our own distress, coupled with a kind desire to want to help.
Dr. Neff identified 3 components to self-compassion: Mindfulness, Kindness, and an Awareness of our Common Humanity.
Mindfulness: awareness of the present moment without judgment. Mindfulness is simply noticing. Noticing what we’re feeling, what we’re experiencing, what we’re thinking. There are a bazillion and one tools to assist with the practice of mindfulness. One of my new favorites is www.calm.com. Check it out – lots of great relaxing music, images, and guided mindfulness meditations. Why is mindfulness important? We can’t feel moved to alleviate our suffering if we don’t even know it’s there!
Kindness: this one is pretty self-explanatory. Self-compassion involves being kind to ourselves. Saying kind things to ourselves. Providing moments of soul-nourishment and attending to our basic needs for wellness and nurturing. Essentially, it’s choosing to quiet the internal critical voice and speak to ourselves as we would to a friend.
Awareness of our Common Humanity: acknowledging that mistakes, pain, misfortune are inevitable aspects of human existence. We all make mistakes. We all fail. We all experience pain, sadness, anger, embarrassment. Pain, anxiety, and perfectionism can be quite isolating. They deceptively tell us that we’re the only ones who’ve ever screwed up to such a massive extent. There must be something inherently wrong with us that we are experiencing such a difficult time. Of course, these are lies. And as we say them out loud we can recognize them as lies. But, these lies can feel awfully believable and true.
So, what does this actually look like? How can we actually coach our children into increased self-compassion? How can we practice increased self-compassion? Lets use a brief example of a gifted child who comes home having “failed” a test (though “failing” can mean getting an F, a C, or even an A- depending on the kid’s perspective!).
Child comes home miserable about her epic failure. Parent coaches child to take a few breathes and to be reflective on what her brain is telling her.
“That I shouldn’t have failed.”
“But what does your brain tell you it means that you failed?”
“That I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“And what does your brain tell you it means when you don’t know what you’re doing?”
“That I’m stupid.” (etc, etc, etc – and there’s the mindfulness)
“Did I ever tell you about the time that I failed my science test?” (and here’s the awareness of common humanity! Mention how everybody has bad test days or share examples from your own life of when you performed worse than you wanted to, etc)
And now the kindness: “So now you know that I’ve failed things before, too. Does that make me stupid? Does that make me a bad dad or any less funny or less of a good cook? Did that stop me from having an amazing family and job? No? So what would you tell me about failing the test? What would you tell your friend if they felt they were stupid? Can you tell yourself those things?”
It's a work in progress, to be sure. Self-compassion takes a lifetime to fully develop. Our brains are wired to pick out our mistakes and hold on to negativities. But, as you nurture this self-compassion in your child, it automatically becomes more of an impulse in yourself, as well! Win-win!