How Embracing Your Flaws and Practicing Self-Compassion Can Improve Your Life
Few of us want to admit that they're imperfect, but the honest truth is that each and every person on the planet has their own unique flaws.
You can either be upset about it, or rise to the occasion and decide to embrace your imperfections. If you choose the latter, self-compassion might be exactly the tool to get you there.
To learn more, we reached out to Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and creator of Self-Compassion.org. She told us all about why we struggle to accept our flaws, and how to practice self-compassion to live out best lives.
Sweety High: Why are so many of us hesitant to accept that we're flawed?
Kristin Neff: It's a pretty natural reaction. When we feel imperfect or inadequate in some way, we feel threatened and frightened, and we're designed by nature to go into fight, flight or freeze mode.
When we see something about ourselves that isn't perfect or we're afraid that someone might criticize us, or we're afraid we'll be rejected or not loved, we feel unsafe. It's counterproductive, but the way we try to protect ourselves is by attacking the problem, which unfortunately is ourselves. At some level, we think that's going to keep us safe, and that it's going to motivate us to change.
Unfortunately, it backfires because, according to the research, when you criticize yourself and feel really stressed, it actually becomes more difficult to achieve your goals. It's important that we frame the desire for perfection in the context of trying to feel safe. We shouldn't beat ourselves up. Of course we all want to be safe.
We should change our sense of safety from the threat-defense system to a care and affiliation system. It's called the tend and befriend response. We also feel secure when we give ourselves unconditional acceptance. That doesn't mean complacency. It might mean saying, "You really need to try to change this because it isn't working out for you. I care about you and I want you to make a change." But it's coming from a place of kindness and care, as opposed to threat, and not thinking you're good enough.
SH: How do we identify the difference between striving for self-betterment and being hindered by trying to be perfect?
KN: The literature on perfectionism usually breaks it into two separate parts. One is the goals we set for ourselves. We want to try to do our best because we care about ourselves. There's also how we treat ourselves when we don't reach our goals, and they're two very different things.
If you're self-compassionate, it doesn't mean you set lower standards for yourself. It means when you don't reach them, you're supportive instead of feeling inadequate or blaming or judging yourself. There's nothing wrong with having high goals as long as you realize that part of reaching those goals is going to involve failure and making mistakes, and you support and encourage yourself along the way.
How can we know the difference? When you're trying to achieve your goals, do you feel stressed, or depressed, or anxious? If so, you're probably putting pressure on yourself. If you don't reach your goals, you'll feel inadequate. But if you're energized and motivated and ready to take on the world, it probably means you're setting high standards as well as giving yourself the support you need.
It's easier to think about in terms of how you might motivate a child. You might motivate them to do better in school because you care about them. You say, "I believe in you. You can do it. I'm here for you. What support do you need?" It's a positive feeling.
Or, you could try motivating a child the way you motivate yourself. "If you don't get that 'A,' I'm going to ground you forever and I'm going to hate you or withdraw my love." That child might work hard in the short term, but that language is actually going to cause long-term problems that undermine that child's happiness. It's easier to understand when we think about the effects it has on other people.
SH: Are there any misconceptions people have about self-compassion?
KN: A lot of people have serious misgivings about self-compassion because they think it's self-pity, or selfish, or that it's going to undermine your motivation or make you blow off responsibility. It's not self-pity, because it's not about "poor me." It's the acceptance that everyone struggles. It's not selfish, because it actually helps you connect more with others. And the research shows it actually increases motivation and the ability to tackle responsibilities. I want people to know that these fears we have about self-compassion aren't true, and in fact, the opposite is true.
SH: How does understanding your compassion for other people help with self-compassion? Does practicing self-compassion make you a kinder person in general?
KN: I think there's a misunderstanding that you can't be compassionate to others before you're self-compassionate. That's not true, because most people are exactly that. But they're compassionate until they burn out, or they're compassionate until they get triggered. We can give and give, until we have nothing left to give, and then we lose our compassion for other people. But when we're more compassionate to ourselves, we can sustain being compassionate to others.
Self-compassion helps with forgiveness and perspective-taking. We're more able to see the perspective of others when we're kinder to ourselves. When we're lost in a cycle of shame and criticism, we're not really thinking about other people. We become very self-absorbed in feelings of inadequacy. When we get the support and acceptance we need, it frees up some mental and emotional space to think about other perspectives. It makes us less ego-reactive, and ego-defensive as well. We can own up to our mistakes and our role in things, and be more understanding of others.
The research also says that taking the perspective of being compassionate to someone else and then doing a U-turn and putting that towards yourself is a great way to learn to be more self-compassionate. We can model self-compassion on how we treat others. They feed and help each other. The more we can integrate both, the more balanced and sustainable compassion is.
SH: In what ways do our lives improve when we come to realize that nobody's perfect and we stop criticizing ourselves for our flaws?
KN: The research is overwhelming. In terms of mental health, it leads to greater happiness and life satisfaction, and less depression, anxiety and stress. It's also linked to greater physical health. There's this mind-body connection. When we're really stressed and self-critical, we're releasing cortisol, which stresses our bodies and can translate to poor physical health. People also have more body satisfaction when they're kinder to themselves. They don't beat themselves up because they don't look like a model. It's also linked to more motivation. A lot of people think that self-criticism is a good motivator, but it isn't. It gives you short-term gains, but in the long-term it undermines you.
I feel so blessed to be able to make this my life's work because self-compassion really does change lives. We have this amazing support system within ourselves. It's a resource we don't tap into, and yet it's right there in our minds at any moment.
The other big thing it does is it makes us feel more connected to others. Psychologists are discovering that a sense of loneliness and isolation from others is a real problem in modern society. We don't spend as much time in communities as we used to. When you can actually connect to others in the experience of imperfection, realizing that all people struggle—even if the types of struggles are different, and how much we struggle is different—we see it as something that actually unites us. Once we start framing our own imperfections in light of the common human experience, then we can use this painful moment as an opportunity to connect with others, and that feels good.
SH: What do you think are the most effective ways to start practicing self-compassion?
KN: One of the simplest ways is through language. If you had a really good friend who cared about you, who was going through the exact same situation you're going through right now, what would you say to them, and how would you say it, with what tone of voice? Then you say it to yourself.
It can feel a little uncomfortable at first, because we're not used to speaking to ourselves positively in the third-person. Too many of us are quite comfortable calling ourselves a stupid fool. Instead, start saying things like, "You're doing the best you can. Everyone's imperfect. I'm here to support you. What can we learn from this situation?" It's easy and very effective.
Another method that's surprisingly simple and powerful is bypassing the mind altogether and going straight to the body. Before language sets in, infants and their parents do all of their communication through a warm, supportive touch, and the body is very sensitive to it. I encourage people to find what kind of touch feels really soothing and supportive for them. For some people, it's putting their hands on their heart, or cradling their face, or giving themselves a hug. When you're upset, you use that touch to remind yourself of your own presence and your own support. It calms your physiology down. When you add an "I'm very sorry you're going through this," or another self-compassionate statement, that can really encourage you to get through what you're feeling badly about.
Click HERE for more self-compassionate tips from Dr. Kristin Neff.
And if you want to start embracing what makes you different, click HERE for five traits you may think are flaws, but are actually major strengths.