Expectations of ourselves & self-compassion
I went swimming recently in the cold Melbourne sea, it was 10º C – very cold).
I was proud of myself for actually plunging in and swimming for 20 minutes in the freezing cold. I love being refreshed by nature and I always love seeing starfish on the ocean floor. It was a highlight of my day.
When done, I went into the nearby pool’s steam room to warm back up.
There, a group of people asked about my swim and then proceeded to tell me they had too had gone out in the open ocean but for well over an hour (one hour thirty six minutes to be exact).
It didn’t stop there. They then all proceeded to discuss whether they had swam the English Channel or whether they were going to and that it takes somewhere between 10-18 hours depending on fitness.
They also commented that I had a wet-suit on that day, and that was cheating!
Really?! I felt somewhat deflated when I left the steam room because of their competitiveness and my comparability and my resulting impacted expectations!
When our expectations are so far from what is feasible or realistic (like the example above if I compare myself to the achievements of that group of swimmers) we set ourselves up for never being satisfied.
Sometimes that leads to you feeling like you never measure up, no matter what you do. It leads to feelings of failure too.
Yes, the F-word.
Even though failing is the VERY thing we have to get used to, and is a necessary part of learning and life. Indeed we must learn to have a level of acceptance about it, in order to build resilience.
Expectations and a resistance to failure can sometimes be coupled with ‘black and white thinking’ which is that you either achieve or fail, and that there is no in-between. You MUST do this, you MUST do that, and if you don’t you are somehow not as worthy as if you do.
In terms of slightly skewed expectations, I’ve been this way in relation to exercise at various times in my life and many people can relate. If I do an exercise class that doesn’t have any cardio, I then sometimes feel the need to do some more cardio work, and then I feel like I need to swim in the open cold sea to be challenged and refreshed, and then maybe a yoga class to stretch and even it up…. and then when I finish, 3 hours has transpired and you’d think I feel on top of the world but, still, somehow I’m not satisfied!
For me, this type of behaviour can be a red flag as it might be illustrating a deeper feeling that “no matter what I do, it’s not enough, I don’t measure up.”
Needless to say, I’m often hard on myself and self-compassion doesn’t come to me naturally. Yet I’m aware of the benefits of practicing self compassion. It starts with awareness and acknowledgement and then we can slowly change our self-expectations and judgements for the better.
Dr Kristin Neff is a researcher and author and writes about the 5 myths of self-compassion which is useful to acquaint ourselves with in our lives. I’ve provided an edited excerpt of these myths direct to reflect upon:
Myth 1 Self-compassion is a form of self-pity
One of the biggest myths about self-compassion is that it means feeling sorry for yourself. In fact, as my own experience exemplifies, self-compassion is an antidote to self-pity and the tendency to whine about our bad luck. This isn’t because self-compassion allows you to tune out the bad stuff; in fact, it makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness—which paradoxically helps us process and let go of them more fully. Research shows that self-compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self-pitying thoughts about how bad things are. That’s one of the reasons self-compassionate people have better mental health.
Myth 2 Self-compassion means weakness
Researchers are discovering that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us. When we go through major life crises, self-compassion appears to make all the difference in our ability to survive and even thrive.
Myth 3 Self-compassion will make me complacent
Perhaps the biggest block to self-compassion is the belief that it’ll undermine our motivation to push ourselves to do better. The idea is that if we don’t criticize ourselves for failing to live up to our standards, we’ll automatically succumb to slothful defeatism. But let’s think for a moment how parents successfully motivate their children. When Rachel’s teenage son comes home one day with a failing English grade, she could look disgusted and hiss, “Stupid boy! You’ll never amount to anything. I’m ashamed of you!” (Makes you cringe, doesn’t it? Yet that’s exactly the type of thing Rachel tells herself when she fails to meet her own high expectations.) But most likely, rather than motivating her son, this torrent of shame will just make him lose faith in himself, and eventually he’ll stop trying altogether.
Alternatively, Rachel could adopt a compassionate approach by saying, “Oh sweetheart, you must be so upset. Hey, give me a hug. It happens to all of us. But we need to get your English grades up because I know you want to get into a good college. What can I do to help and support you? I believe in you.” Notice that there’s honest recognition of the failure, sympathy for her son’s unhappiness, and encouragement to go beyond or around this momentary bump in the road.
This type of caring response helps us maintain our self- confidence and feel emotionally supported. Ironically, even though Rachel wouldn’t even dream of taking the former approach with her son, she unquestionably believes that self- flagellation is necessary for her to achieve her goals. She assumes that her anxiety, depression, and stress are a result of her not trying hard enough.
But there’s now a good deal of research clearly showing that self-compassion is a far more effective force for personal motivation than self-punishment.
Myth 4 Self-compassion is narcissistic
The desire to see ourselves as better than average, however, to get and keep that elusive feeling of high self-esteem, can lead to downright nasty behavior. Why do early adolescents begin to bully others? If I can be seen as the cool, tough kid in contrast to the wimpy nerd I just picked on, I get a self-esteem boost. Why are we so prejudiced? If I believe that my ethnic, gender, national, political group is better than yours, I get a self-esteem boost.
But self-compassion is different from self-esteem. Although they’re both strongly linked to psychological wellbeing, self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self-worth, while self- compassion isn’t a judgment or an evaluation at all. Instead, self-compassion is a way
of relating to the ever-changing landscape of who we are with kindness and acceptance— especially when we fail or feel inadequate. In other words, self-esteem requires feeling better than others, whereas self-compassion requires acknowledging that we share the human condition of imperfection.
Myth 5 Self-compassion is selfish
Most people find that when they’re absorbed in self-judgment, they actually have little energy to think about anything other than their inadequate, worthless selves. In fact, beating yourself up can be a paradoxical form of self-centeredness. When we can be kind and nurturing to ourselves, however, many of our emotional needs are met, leaving us in a better position to focus on others.
Unfortunately, the ideal of being modest, self-effacing, and caring for the welfare of others often comes with the corollary that we must treat ourselves badly….
The irony is that being good to yourself actually helps you be good to others, while being bad to yourself only gets in the way.
I am heading overseas to the USA this week to visit family and friends. I’ve no doubt that catching up with people will be both wonderful and sometimes triggering and challenging, it’s only natural. I am committed to practicing self-compassion and compassion for others on my trip and to celebrate the joys of small pleasures, like a 20-minute (or just a few minute!) swim in the ocean.
Until next time,