How to Be Your Own Valentine
By Elaine Handley
Valentine’s Day is coming—a day we celebrate those we cherish. I wonder, do you ever think about also using the day to appreciate what you are up against and the effort you are putting forth? Sometimes I am astounded by what people are dealing with in their lives and the pressure they are under: illness, addiction, homelessness, job stress, caretaking responsibilities, family troubles, money worries—the list goes on. How do you stay resilient in the face of it all?
One thing that can help is self-compassion. Are you rolling your eyes? Are you saying to yourself “Yeah, like I have the time to be self-indulgent.” Hear me out. First of all, self-compassion has nothing to do with self-indulgence. And learning to practice self-compassion will take no extra time, and improve the quality of your life, including your relationships.
We all have an inner voice that is constantly yakking at us, commenting on the world, making to-do lists, rehearsing what we are going to say or do later—and often criticizing us. Tune in and notice how often the inner voice is really your inner critic: “What a stupid thing to say!” “Really? You lost your keys again? ““Why don’t you do anything right?” “No wonder nobody likes you!” Most of us have inner critics who are not very nice to us, who angrily berate us, saying things we would never or rarely say to anyone else.
“Right!” You say. “I need the criticism to be motivated to do better, to not make the same mistakes, to have better self-control, to stay aware of how I affect others.” So why don’t you talk that way to your best friend? I bet when your closest friend has just messed up you show him or her compassion: “Hey, we all screw up from time-to-time.” “You didn’t mean to hurt his feelings.” “You’ll do better next time.” As a result your friend feels comforted and understood, and probably is motivated to not make the same mistake again. Your kindness makes your friend feel supported and cared about.
Self-compassion is applying this kindheartedness to your self. It’s a kind of self-awareness now being recognized by psychologists as a vital approach to building emotional resilience and well-being. It contains three core components: self-kindness (treating yourself kindly instead of beating up on yourself,) an awareness of our common humanity (being human is hard and we are all flawed), and mindfulness (honestly acknowledging what you have done wrong, making repairs if you can and vowing to do better next time). Mindfulness means being present to what is going on in your life—without judgment. The Inner Critic is all about being judgy.
At the heart of self-compassion is the understanding that by extending compassion to the self, our capacity for emotional well-being is expanded, as is our ability to be compassionate toward others. The standard shorthand for self-compassion is to treat yourself the way you would treat someone you care about.
There is cultural prejudice against this idea—self-compassion sounds like self-pity, and besides, if you’re too soft on yourself you won’t stay motivated—right? You need to push yourself, not be a wimp.
However, we now have studies that prove self-compassion trumps self-criticism, which is associated with anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression and troubled personal relationships. Self-criticism, which means to help you avoid failure and disapproval, is associated with rumination and procrastination. The goal is great—but the method is not. Being hard on yourself will never make you feel good about yourself.
There’s a lot of talk about building your self –esteem, but self-esteem is created by comparing yourself to others. If you are more successful, more valued, your self-esteem is good; you have to perceive yourself as better than. In contrast, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluation, and therefore lessens fear of failure. Applying self-compassion helps with your own motivation to do well, and focuses on mastery, rather than performance.
So think about being your own valentine this year. Notice what you say to yourself and be curious about what the inner critic is up to: trying to make you do better, point out what you need to work on, help you not keep making the same mistakes. All worthy goals. But start to replace the inner critic’s way of talking to you—its tone and language-- with that of your Inner Compassionate Self. Tell yourself what you wish someone dear to you would say to reassure you: “It’s okay, good people make mistakes.” “You did the best you could and now you know more.” “I know you will be better next time.” This sounds easy, but it takes practice. Our Inner Critic has been at its job a long time and is good at it! Start noticing today how you talk to yourself and replace it with kind, honest words that are also encouraging and comforting.
The poet Lao Tzu said “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” This Valentine’s day, give yourself some love.