Why self- compassion should be your number 1 goal for 2023
Written by Dr. Nicola Eccles on 05 Jan 2023
In January 2023 the majority of us find ourselves managing rather than thriving. We have been living through a permacrisis (Click here to see our webinar on the Permacrisis) launching from one critically stressful situation to another. From Brexit to the pandemic to climate anxiety and rising living costs. The things that predispose individuals to mental health problems have been magnified. For many of us our lifestyle behaviours have subsequently been negatively impacted. Perhaps drinking a bit more than we should, lacking motivation to eat healthily or to exercise or becoming addicted to scrolling our phone instead of focusing on something that needs our attention.
Many of us are starting the New Year with low mood and perhaps some guilt or negativity around our lifestyle behaviours. But change will never emerge from shame and guilt. Self-compassion and curiosity are the foundation bricks of behaviour change rather than self-deprecation and punishment.
This means that if you want to actually enact change this year then the first thing you need to do is to be kind to yourself. It really is that simple. Clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert’s famous book ‘The Compassionate Mind’ (1) was critical in our understanding of how compassion can transform lives. Compassion for yourself and others. His work showed that when we look at the root of negative thoughts about ourselves and really ask ourselves to validate those thoughts, we start to understand where they come from. For example, from a fear of abandonment, or feeling shameful, or feeling inferior.
Kindness and compassion, researchers show, stimulate areas of the brain and body which in turn promote wellbeing. Kindness and compassion both from others and ourselves, throughout our life course really can positively alter our mental health.
When we experience low mood and wake up feeling a bit off or anxious (as so many of us do these days) then we move through the day in a more negative and detrimental way than if we were in a ‘flow state’ or woke up feeling positive and happy. So, when we wake up feeling ‘off’ we might find ourselves slightly flustered, harassed and rushed. Then we make mistakes and forget things. We forget to respond to an email, or snap at our child. We are late for a meeting and then forget to pick up a prescription. We get home and decide not to exercise and instead pour a glass of wine. The impact of this, the snowball effect of low mood, anxiety or stress is much greater than the feeling itself. It has a wider ripple effect on the whole day which often turns into self-criticism and negative thoughts towards ourselves. Which in turn impacts our mental health further.
Many of us believe that in order to ‘force’ ourselves to change we need to adopt a bootcamp militant style approach. We need to tell ourselves how terrible we are, how ridiculous we are, how needy we are. But in fact, the opposite occurs. Researchers (2) have shown that self-compassion towards ourselves, increases our motivation for self-improvement. The paradox is that accepting our failures and giving ourselves plenty of compassion around them is more likely to drive change than beating ourselves up and forcing strict regimes or a militant boot camp reaction.
You might think that showing ourselves self-compassion could lead to a lack of motivation or complacency around change or goals. But allowing yourself to confront your failures and mistakes and weaknesses actually allows you to be curious about them rather than defensive. From this place of compassionate curiosity we can begin to ask ourselves more relevant questions about the failures and negative habits. When we really explore the root of these from a non-judgemental place, we are far more likely to be successful in making changes in the future.
The world right now, doesn’t lend itself particularly to time, space and reflection but this New Year we encourage you to stop, pause and take a breath. Give yourself credit and compassion for where you are right now, whatever that might mean. Don’t allow the negative chatter to enter your mind. Explain to yourself that any negative habits or behaviours or mood states you might experience on a regular basis are in fact a very effective way of coping with the world. Tell yourself how well you have done. Then, and only then, can you begin to think about how things could begin to be different and that you have the power to make that so.
- Gilbert, Paul (2009) The Compassionate Mind. Great Britain, Robinson.
- Breines, J., Chen, S. (2012). Self- compassion increases self-improvement motivation, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 38.9.