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Power of Being Kind…to Yourself—The Science of Self-Compassion

“’Tis the season to be jolly.” That’s what the song says, but that’s not always as easy as it sounds. Between the days getting shorter, shopping for the “perfect” gift, and family gatherings to attend (or not having gatherings to attend), there can be feelings of anxiety instead of peace.

How does one navigate the holidays and actually feel “in good spirits”? The answer may lay in the new frontier of self-compassion. There are things about the holidays we can’t control—the weather, other people’s expectations, the economy—but we can control how we treat ourselves.

The idea of self-esteem has been around for a long time, but the idea of therapeutic self-compassion is relatively new. In 2017, The New York Times published an article citing Dr. Kristin Neff’s pioneering research showing that self-compassion helps people reduce anxiety and stress––even for soldiers struggling with PTSD.

A significant factor in anxiety is our fear of how we are going to be treated. It’s not usually the fear of how other people are going to treat us, but of how we will treat ourselves. As one woman, Elizabeth, described her fear of parties, “I don’t like talking to people I don’t know. If it doesn’t go well, I criticize myself for all the things I should have said differently.”

We can easily be our own worst enemy. Our brain reacts to criticism by releasing adrenaline and the “stress” hormone cortisol, and it does this whether the negativity is coming from other people or ourselves. Extensive self-criticism causes stress on our body and can contribute to depression.

So, why are we hard on ourselves? We think it’s motivating. We think if we are too nice to ourselves, we’ll become lazy. But, there’s a difference between having high standards and being nasty. The idea is to talk to yourself the way you would a friend.

A Harvard Medical School report states that self-compassionate people experience many positive benefits including more happiness, higher optimism, lower levels of procrastination, and more weight loss success.

To increase self-esteem, one usually has to do something like lose weight or get a new job, but, since self-compassion is about self-acceptance, it can be done right away. It isn’t dependent on achievement. Ironically, the research shows that the more self-compassion one has, the more likely one is able to achieve the things they want.

A friend of my family normally gave us a substantial holiday gift each year, but one year was different. She gave us each a pretty but inexpensive kitchen towel. She explained that the roof on her house needed to be replaced and money was tight. I’ve never forgotten that, because this meant she knew we cared for her and wouldn’t want her to spend money she didn’t have. I still have that towel. It’s threadbare now, but I won’t let it go. I didn’t know it then, but I know now, that was a true act of self-compassion. She took care of herself and trusted us to want that for her.

Self-compassion has changed the holidays for me. My husband and I picked-up a relative on the way to the big family Christmas party. As we pulled into her driveway, I reminded him she would be late and discombobulated. She’ll come rushing out the door with the secret Santa gift in one hand, wrapping paper in the other, juggling a platter of deviled eggs with her coat askew. But just as I finished saying that, out she walked, with a wrapped gift, all buttoned up and smiling. My jaw dropped. “What happened?” I exclaimed. She thought about it, “I guess I followed what you’ve shared on self-care. I bought a gift and didn’t get perfectionistic; they all have enough. I didn’t burden myself with making the eggs, they never eat them anyway and there’s always enough food. And I kept reminding myself of that quote you’re always saying, ‘What other people think of you is none of your business.’ ”

I’m thrilled to say that instead of being balls of anxiety on the trip to my Aunt’s house, we had a nice time and listened to Christmas carols on the radio.

Two keys to self-compassion are: 1) Treating yourself with kindness, and 2) Silencing the harsh inner self-critic. When we engage in self-compassion by saying thoughtful things to ourselves, we release the “feel good” hormone, oxytocin, which is linked to strong mental health, motivation, happiness, and better relationships.

So, as you’re preparing for the holiday season, remember the gift-giving saying, “It’s the thought that counts.” Give yourself some kind thoughts—it might just be the gift you need.



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