“I feel like such a failure,” she said. “I used to make resolutions come January, then I started thinking there’s no point. It just piles on the guilt when I can’t stick to them.”
We can be hard on ourselves. We often focus on our perceived limitations and get caught in a cycle of self-reproach and criticism. This self-punitive attitude can distance us from others, as we might feel unworthy of or a burden to other people, increasing our disconnectedness and loneliness.
Low self-esteem and social isolation go hand-in-hand. But the opposite is also true: Treating ourselves well is connected with positive feelings toward others and gratitude about life.
A kind and accepting stance toward oneself can decrease psychological distress and increase resilience to difficult situations. Shifting our default away from self-blame can open space for a broader appreciation of how we ended up where we are. Behind feelings of stuckness and disillusionment is often a story of suffering, disappointment and ongoing attempts to make things better.
Create a kinder inner voice
Given the pressure many of us face to perform to our max and the tendency to compare ourselves with others (feeling “less than” when we don’t measure up), it makes sense that our minds would quickly go down the self-criticism route. It can be easy to forget that our self-worth should not be a relative quality.
Self-compassion allows for a more balanced perspective to emerge on our struggles, qualities and circumstances. This might allow us to “give ourselves a break” instead of fueling that demanding inner voice that’s never satisfied, no matter how hard we push.
This inner voice often has an origin story. My patient linked her self-demands with her caregivers’ expectations of her growing up: “Without perfection, there was no love. I ended up seeing myself as a flawed person who could never earn their affection.”
When our inner voice is harsh, something more benign may need to be modeled for us to give ourselves “permission” to develop self-kindness. My patient commented on this during our psychotherapy work: “It’s easy to deal with criticism, since I expect it. It’s confusing dealing with kindness. Over time, I realized there are other ways for me to treat myself. This work has provided me with a kinder inner compass.”
By broadening how we think of ourselves, we can see beyond the ideal life that has failed to materialize. The space between “good enough” and “perfect” will always be infinite. Cultivating a sense of accomplishment can lead to renewed appreciation for life and for the positive impact we have had on others.
Self-compassion drives compassion for others
A softer self-stance can drive positive attitudes toward others, and a cycle of a different sort develops — one of understanding and connectedness.
Cultivating awareness of our own emotions is linked with developing sensitivity and responsiveness to the emotional states of others. One brain area mediating this connection is the anterior insula. It is activated when we notice our own emotional and bodily state, and is involved in patterning feelings of connectedness, cooperation and love when we interact with others.
The greater the anterior insula activation (suggesting stronger emotional signaling), the more it helps recruit other brain areas involved in empathy and pro-social behaviors.
In contrast, areas activated during social reward and connectedness may be under-recruited in conditions such as depression and anxiety, keeping individuals feeling alone and misunderstood. By better understanding ourselves, we can better attune to the internal states of others.
With this in mind, there are ways of nurturing a more thoughtful and appreciative outlook.
Practice gratitude, not entitlement
Being grateful promotes well-being and affects particular biological systems, for instance by decreasing activity in some brain areas that generate negative emotions and by lowering certain inflammatory blood markers (which can signal stress).
When we focus on what we feel is owed to us but don’t possess, it’s easy to lose perspective, forgetting that many are enduring worse conditions. Being grateful not only increases life satisfaction and lowers stress, it also can curb envy and materialistic attitudes, lessening the need to compare ourselves with others or seek endless accumulation.
While clinging to other people’s transgressions might make us feel morally superior, it maintains a gap between us and others, obstructing connectedness and empathy. It also narrows our understanding of who other people are, as we may only keep the negative in mind when formulating opinions on them.
Showing grace to others is often easier than doing the same for ourselves. Life experiences can shape us to believe the worst about ourselves, feeling we’ve done irreparable damage to the world that requires lifelong penance.
Stopping this cycle may involve acknowledging there is more to us than our flaws, and whatever shortcomings we might have do not define us, nor do they erase the inherent worth we all have. As the dependence on external validation lessens, self-kindness can become a much more reliable and effective asset.
Christopher W.T. Miller, MD, is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing at the University of Maryland Medical Center and an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He is the author of “The Object Relations Lens: A Psychodynamic Framework for the Beginning Therapist.”
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