The way we view and respond to the external world is a direct reflection of our internal landscape.
Growing up, during our early years of brain development, many of us were not shown love unconditionally. Love was often tied to things like being a ‘good’ child, taking care of others, playing a role, behaving at a high level, or something else. What this means, is that love had a few barriers around it – it wasn’t just offered without conditions. This also meant that we had to work within a (potentially harsh or unpredictable) framework to receive what we needed to survive.
Today, the result is that we have to re-learn what love feels like. We have to re-program our minds to experience love as a safe place where you’re able to show up, just as you are, and feel worthy of receiving it without having to perform. At the center of this, is self-compassion.
In “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook” by Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer, they introduce the text with this quote:
“Our task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” – Rumi
To us, this hits the nail straight on the head.
Months ago members of our team came together to complete The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook and have been discussing unconditional love frequently in their ongoing therapy sessions. The biggest realizations for each of them were:
- How self-critical they were
- How they’d been unconsciously resisting self-compassion
- How they harboured suspicions, even judgments, around self-kindness
- And how they believed that self-criticism was an ally to success.
“In the first and second chapters of the workbook, you’re asked to describe how you treat a friend when they’re struggling, and then how you treat yourself when you’re struggling. The contrast for me was pretty stark. I’m empathetic, patient, kind, and encouraging to a friend. But for myself, I expect quick perseverance, efficiency, and high performance with little compassion for whatever else might be going on in my life. Promptly, the book moved into challenging me to reflect on why my kind attitude applied to others but not myself. After a bit of journaling, we were given common misconceptions that people glom onto to justify their self-criticism and I was hit with this: “I will never get to where I want in my life if I let up on my harsh self-criticism … It’s what drives me to succeed. Self-compassion is fine for some people, but I have high standards and goals I want to achieve… .” Eeek. This is exactly what I believed,” shared a Sero team member.
Research shows that, while most people believe criticism is an effective motivator, it’s not. Self-criticism actually undermines self-confidence, leading to self-doubt and fear of failure at the subconscious level. In reality, self-compassionate individuals are still very motivated to achieve – but rather than beating themselves up, muscling to overcome how inadequate they are, they’re instead equipped with a forward-focused mindset, caring about themselves and driven to reach their highest potential. Because of their self-compassion, they’re also they’re less afraid to fail, making them more likely to try again and stay on track if things go sideways. This applies to all aspects of their life – career, relationships, family life, creative projects, etc.
“Something that really landed for me was learning about the physiological benefits of self-compassion, and how it can shift our chemistry,” shared one Sero team member. “When we are self-critical, it results in a stress response; we go into fight or flight, and our adrenals release a cascade of cortisol throughout the body. This makes sense, as our mind is signalling we are not safe, or in control, or accepted when we experience thoughts of shame, embarrassment, isolation, or a feeling that we aren’t enough. When we practice self-compassion, however, we can turn on our parasympathetic (or rest and digest) state. Consequently: cortisol levels decrease, oxytocin (the hug molecule) is released, and our Heart Rate Variability (HRV) improves. This is all discussed in the book in relation to the Care System. To activate the Care System and achieve a soothing rebalance of our chemistry, self-touch is suggested as a way to relax – just like when a parent holds and rocks a baby when it’s distressed. This self-touch could look like hands on heart and stomach, massaging the neck, tapping the chest, hugging yourself, or whatever contact resonates for you. How fascinating that self-compassion, just like breathwork, quite literally alchemizes the body. I’ve been applying this technique, in addition to more compassionate self-talk, in moments when I’m triggered. It’s been hugely beneficial in calming me down to make more mindful decisions. “
Another big lesson has been learning the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem:
“It was interesting for me to learn that self-compassion isn’t about pumping yourself up or trying to make yourself feel better. In the book they write: “Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self-worth. Self-compassion isn’t a judgment or an evaluation at all.” When I read this, I realized just how much time I spend comparing myself to others, always searching for ways to boost my self-esteem,” shared another Sero team member. “As they go on to describe, the tricky thing is, self-esteem quickly bails on us the moment when we need it the most – when we fail or feel embarrassed. While self-esteem is typically keeping score of things like physical attractiveness, performance, and intelligence – self-compassion is more interested in relating to the world around us vs. pinning us against it. Self-esteem is fragile, self-compassion is reliable and offers resilience.”
Together, we’ve come to understand and internally evaluate the three elements of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness: a supportive and encouraging internal talk-track
- Common Humanity: recognizing that all humans are flawed works-in-progress and that life entails suffering for everyone, without exception
- Mindfulness: being aware of your present moment-to-moment experience in a clear, emotionally balanced manner
When these three elements come together, we’re able to unlock a level of self-compassion, openness, and love that allows us to thrive. Like truly thrive.
When we’re dismantling self-criticism, we’re also dismantling the programmed survival conditions we were wired to believe would lead to success. We’re able to break down the barriers that hold you back from experiencing a rich, creative, loving life, full of curiosity, acceptance, and possibility.
When we access self-compassion, we become more resilient, life becomes more beautiful, we have stronger relationships, we’re more open to experience, and we feel more connected to life.
This is why, loving yourself unconditionally is the fundamental key to embodying love as your state of being.