The Benefits of Self-Compassion: Embracing Positivity

April 15, 2014 | Found In:  Be Inspired

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We live in a success-driven culture. Being a “go-getter,” “Type A” or a “Super Perfectionist” are descriptors that many of us use to describe ourselves with pride. But even for the most driven among us, aging can make us slow down and call into question whether we need to tone down our strongest critic: ourselves. Recent years have seen both a resurgence of and backlash against an oft-misunderstood field of study, positive psychology. Far from being an overly idealistic, somewhat delusional “be happy at all costs” theory, positive psychology is simply the name given to a subfield of psychology that seeks “to make normal life more fulfilling.” Positive psychology promotes an exploration of our values, strengths, talents and virtues and encourages us to challenge the negative styles of thinking that may be impacting our mood and wellbeing.

Dr. Emma Seppala, Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford University, has built a successful career around promoting the virtues of happiness, social connection and compassion. We have shared her infographic for the Benefits of Self-Compassion to the left. This is a useful guide to beginning the journey to develop greater empathy and compassion for ourselves. Dr. Seppala writes, “Self-compassion involves treating oneself as one would a friend, being more mindful, and understanding our situation in the context of a larger human experience. When we can be more understanding and gentler with ourselves, identify less with the emotions that surround our mistakes, and understand that failure is a normal part of the larger human experience, we become stronger and more successful in the long run.”

Called a “self-defeating tendency,” self-criticism is the polar opposite to self-compassion. It is a tendency to put oneself down and engage in critical self-talk that is often full of statements that start with “I should have…,” or “If only I had been more/less…,” or “Things would just be so much better if…” But our thoughts can become our reality; there is nothing to be gained by repeating negative self-talk. The good news is that self-compassion can be learned. It is a daily mental exercise that over time can become a more natural way of thinking and living. And, it’s never too late to start.

Indeed, when asked what is one thing that they wish they could have told their younger selves, many of the inspirational elders who we interview at Changing the Way the World Ages are quick to reply “I’d have been kinder to myself” or “I wouldn’t have sweat the small stuff as much…I’d have enjoyed myself more.” Self-compassion is a common characteristic in those who remain active and fulfilled into their 90s and beyond. We’ve distilled many of the self-compassion self practices common among the inspirational seniors with whom we engage into the five tips below:

  • Cultivate a resilient approach to setbacks; use perceived failures as lessons learned and then move on.
  • When you feel your mind wandering or find yourself ruminating on stressors or concerns (especially those that are out of your control), do what works for you to bring yourself back into a good mental state—for some people this is exercise, for others it is meditation and still for others it’s simply reading a good book.
  • Remind yourself each day why you’re proud of yourself. Try to focus on your strengths and make a lifelong commitment to personal growth and development of your passions.
  • Develop a culture of gratitude for what you have rather than focusing on what you lack. The happiest older adults describing focusing on their abilities rather than their disabilities.
  • Give yourself the same courtesy you give others: we tend to be much harder on ourselves than we are on others. Be gentle with yourself, and be aware of the self-critical words that you use.

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