Self-Compassion or Self-Sabotage?

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If not now, when?” –Rabbi Hillel.

If the quote that starts off the Self-Compassion Chapter of psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson’s book Resilient makes you a little self-conscious, you’re not alone.


Self-Compassion or Excuses?

Roughly ninety minutes before I had to leave for Social Club, I sat down to complete my accountability task (writing a video script for a well-being exercise), a challenge I’d issued myself at the conclusion of the previous meeting. Accountability tasks are useful because they lend mild peer pressure to good intentions that we might otherwise let slide.   

My mind was working a mile a minute, but not on what to write.

There had been only six days (four workdays) between meetings.

An unexpected project had taken up one of those days.

Someone had asked me to fill in as a discussion leader for our meditation group, which ate up part of another day.

I had blocked out time on Sunday to write, but my partner wanted to spend time with me.

It was better to write a good script than one that had to be re-shot.

I hadn’t gotten in my step count for the day.

If my accountability task had been coming up with excuses, I would have nailed it. But, despite my rationalization skills, I couldn’t quiet the voice in my head that said I was just being lazy.

Getting Mowed Down

One of the chores I shared with my brother, growing up, was mowing the lawn.

I was allergic to grass. Prying it from the catcher into the lawn bags turned my arms red and made them itch. I frequently had to pause for a sneezing fit. If I wiped sweat from my brow, my eyes grew puffy and teared up. On a hot, polluted day, my asthma flared up before I finished, so I’d go inside and lie down on the sofa until my medications kicked in and I could breathe again.

If my father walked in and found me recovering, he would say something motivational like, “Lazy bones.”

After one day of mowing my medications almost didn’t bring me back. My dad wasn’t home. My mother didn’t drive. As I lay on the sofa, I experienced waves of stabbing pain in my chest. Each time they peaked, I had to decide whether or not they warranted calling an ambulance. I didn’t know what a fatal asthma attack felt like.

At dinner that night, my dad looked down on the spacious back lawn and casually said, “Missed a spot.”

That was the last time I mowed the lawn. I chose laziness over my dad’s work ethic. Dad had asthma, too, and he toughed out many tasks that exacerbated it. He also died of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Feeling Guilty

The voice in my head telling me I was lazy for not completing my script was my dad’s.

I felt guilty because the voices in the heads of people challenged by depression can turn the famous quote advocating self-care (If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If not now, when?) into a call for self-sabotage. Being “for myself” might mean spending endless hours under the covers instead of getting much needed exercise. Immediate gratification of short-term pleasure can supersede pursuit of long-term health because “if not now, when?” And, self-isolation can replace spending time with people because no one out there could possibly “be for me.”

I’m not a paragon of self-discipline, but I don’t want to get in the habit of not being accountable to myself.

Self-Criticism or Self-Guidance

Kayleigh Isaacs, founder of the Awake Network, hosted an online conversation with Dr. Hanson where a woman asked, “When working on self compassion, there seems to be a risk of getting too soft on oneself. What’s the balance between self-discipline and self-compassion?”

Hanson explained that it’s useful to distinguish between self-criticism and self-guidance. A good guide will prompt you to challenge yourself, acknowledge areas where you need improvement, and support you in making those improvements.

The self-critic, often sounding like a well-meaning but demoralizing parent, makes us feel incapable of surmounting our challenges.

Three Arguments for Self-Compassion

In Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, Hanson makes three more cases for self-compassion.

1. “The Golden Rule is a two-way street: we should do unto ourselves as we do unto others.”

2. “The more influence we have over someone, the more responsibility we have to treat them well…Who’s the one person you can affect the most? It’s yourself, both you in this moment and your future self: the person you will be in the next minute, week, or year.”

3. “Being good to yourself is good for others…Think about how it would benefit others if you felt less stressed, worried, or irritated, and more peaceful, contented, and loving.”

Tricking Our Brains into Self-Compassion

The problem with using self-compassion to move from depression to well-being is that we know what we should do, and we know what’s responsible, but our self-guidance keeps getting drowned out by our self-critic.

When depressed it’s easier for us to muster compassion for someone we believe to be genuinely worthy than for ourselves.

Ten Minute Exercise

A brain hack that can turn our capacity to show compassion for others back to ourselves is the Self-Compassion Letter from the Greater Good Science Center website. Here’s a basic outline

1. Find a pen and paper or other writing implements.

2. Set a timer for ten minutes.

3. First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough.

Internalized fear of laziness.

4. Write down how it makes you feel.

Well, lazy. Also, not good enough.

5. Imagine someone who loves you unconditionally. What would they say to you?

Depending on my state of unworthiness I might think it would take a superhero to care about me. I’ll go with Batman.

Hey, Citizen of Gotham: Heard you’re feeling lazy because you didn’t finish your accountability task.

6. Have them remind you that everyone has flaws.

Nobody’s perfect. As hard as the Justice League works to combat crime, the Avengers seem to be wiping the floor with us at the box office. 

7. Consider the influence of life events, family, genetics, etc.

I don’t think it’s worth beating yourself up because you inherited your dad’s allergies. And remember the story your dad told you about how his father made him tough out a broken foot? Maybe that rubbed off on him.

8. In a compassionate way, ask whether there are things you can do to improve or to cope.

If I had to pull something out of my utility belt to address this problem, I’d say that you weren’t being lazy so much as acknowledging other people’s needs. Deferring your accountability didn’t shortchange anyone, and the alternate uses of time weren’t self-indulgent. Just make sure you don’t get in the habit of over-promising and under-delivering. That’s not good for your self-esteem and will impact your ability to help others. Feel free to use the Bat Signal when you need to, but remember, I’m out there fighting crime. – B 

9. After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it later and read it again.

Here’s the full set of instructions for the Self-Compassion Letter (it’s not being lazy to do it in 10 minutes instead of 15).

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.