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Embracing Imperfection and the Art of Being A Compassionate Mess

Shannon Harvey

The work I produce is unoriginal, meaningless tripe…
I’m a terrible mother, who’s always too tired for her kids…
I can’t cook…

All this, according to the voice in my head, is fact. Fortunately, of late, I’ve been learning not to believe everything I think.

I first began taking notice of the mean voice in my head after meeting social scientist and self-compassion pioneer Kristen Neff, a clinical psychologist from the University of Texas, who developed something called the Self-Compassion Scale in 2003, which paved the way for a new field of psychological research. Since then almost 1500 articles or dissertations have been written about self-compassion, examining everything from the link between self-compassion and academic performance to the association between self-compassion and depression.

Although not consciously, before coming across Neff’s research, I’d assumed that my harsh internal narrative functioned as a kind-of all-natural and honourable motivational force, keeping me in check and making me strive to be a better journalist, wife, mother, sister, friend, daughter… human. I hadn't thought about it much, but I guess I assumed that without an inner cattle prod, I was at risk of becoming a selfish, amoral wastrel.

According to Neff, it is actually quite natural to be self-critical. It’s a product of evolutionary forces and probably helped us to stay in the good graces of our tribe in the wild Palaeolithic days, when a lone human was likely to be a dead human. “The fact that we spend so much of our time criticising ourselves or thinking about what we did wrong or what we might do wrong actually comes from a very wholesome desire and that’s a desire to be safe… And it's not just you, it’s actually the way the human brain is designed,” Neff explained.

Unfortunately, left to its own devices, what initially starts out as well-intentioned goading towards being our best-selves, can lead to unhelpful cycles of rumination and measurably destructive effects, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Among researchers, there’s an increasingly emphatic view that rampant self-criticism – when we overly judge and evaluate ourselves negatively – is a cause of mental disorders, as opposed to merely co-existing with them or resulting from them.

In one study, people with depression and people who had once experienced depression had much higher levels of self-criticism, compared to healthy controls, above and beyond other potential correlates of the illness such as perfectionism and rumination. Another study found that it wasn’t long-working hours or a prior history of depression that predicted whether or not young medical students would develop depression two years later, it was their levels of self-criticism. Among the men, this prediction still held true ten years later.

If the mental health implications weren’t enough to convince me to start trying to cultivate a kinder inner voice, the research indicating that self-compassion may have measurable health benefits, sure were. Although I’d previously thought that self-criticism was a potent personal motivator, it turns out that it's more effective if I speak to myself in a softer tone, such as how I would sound if I were trying to encourage a close friend or one of my kids.

Studies have shown that self-compassion is associated with all manner of healthy behaviours, including eating well and sticking to our intended diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and following our doctors orders. Researchers think that this is because self-compassionate people recognise that everyone makes mistakes from time to time, and can respond to their inevitable failures and setbacks with acceptance rather than judgment, making them more resilient.

As someone with an autoimmune disease that is worsened by poor lifestyle habits, and as someone with a tendency for ruminative insomnia, Neff inspired me to intentionally do something about my harsh inner critic. I confess that the idea of walking around with an enthusiastic cheerleading coach in my head instead of a highly-critical nit-picker really appealed to me. But before I started implementing self-compassion boosting strategies (an eight week program that Neff and her colleague Christopher Germer developed has been shown to work), I couldn’t help but wonder about the flip side to all this. If I actively cultivated a nicer, gentler inner self-talk, wouldn’t I be at risk of becoming an egocentric jerk?

Not so, explained Neff, who was careful to make a distinction between self-compassion and self-esteem. “Self-esteem is a fair weather friend that entails judgment – ‘I judge myself to be a very good person, a somewhat good person, a middling person, and a not-below-average person,’ but unlike self-esteem, which is about judging ourselves positively, self-compassion is about relating to ourselves kindly and with the sense of connectedness to other people,” she explained. “It’s when you fail or make a mistake or say that ridiculous thing, that's precisely when self-compassion is there to help.” In other words, the idea is to learn to be “a compassionate mess,” as Neff called it.

After my encounter with Neff I started intentionally practising self-compassion as part of the daily meditation practice that I was already doing. In the beginning, I scored 3.2 out of 5 on her self-compassion scale, which is an average score. Eighteen months later, my inner critic is still constantly pointing out my parenting missteps, my friendship failures and my journalistic inadequacies, but I recently took the scale again and scored 3.9. With all my failings and shortcomings, I’m still a mess, but at least, I’m a slightly more self-compassionate mess.

All this is to say, I guess...

... the work I produce probably isn’t terrible.
... my 6-year-old son did recently write me a Post-It note saying, “You’re doing a great job.”
... and I’m getting a bit better at cooking.


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