We live in a culture that tells us we’re lazy and self-indulgent if we don’t criticize ourselves. Our media exposure and our peers at Stanford tell us we’re not good enough no matter how hard we try — we’re not smart enough, pretty enough, cool enough, studying enough, partying enough, even happy enough (yes, we can compete on everything, and we do!). We all have something about ourselves that we don’t like, that we’re ashamed or insecure about. At the same time, we reject the patently true fact that imperfection is human. When we fail, we perceive that we’re alone in our failure — even though feelings of inadequacy and insecurity are part of living the human life.
It’s time we realize that our self-critical and self-judgmental outlook is not healthy. We tell ourselves that it is what has driven us to where we are today, at Stanford. We avoid being too kind to ourselves because we fear becoming self-indulgent. But a 2007 study at Wake Forest University demonstrated that a minor self-compassion intervention can actually curb overeating instead of encouraging it, contrary to expectations. Female college students were asked to eat doughnuts. Half were given a lesson in self-compassion with the food: the instructor said, “I hope you won’t be hard on yourself. Everyone in the study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel real bad about it.” Later, all were asked to taste test candy. The women who heard the reassurance ate less; those who hadn’t, ate more. The hypothesis is that the women who felt guilty for eating the doughnuts engaged in “emotional” eating, whereas the women who gave themselves permission to eat the doughnuts didn’t overeat.
A 2007 study by Neff, Rude and Kirkpatrick found that self-compassion is correlated with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, initiative, curiosity, agreeableness, extroversion and conscientiousness. It is negatively correlated with negative affect and neuroticism. Self-compassion predicts positive psychological health beyond that attributable to personality.
Self-compassion is a relatively new concept in psychological research and practice. However, its import hit home when I attended the memorial service of a Stanford student and friend who was incredibly active in public service and in the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, but wasn’t compassionate enough to herself and took her own life.
There, in the peace and beauty of Memorial Church, I was reminded that the greatest relationship we can have is with ourselves. And the greatest life that we can live is the authentic one. It’s hard, but by being real about our struggles, we can turn our vulnerabilities into strengths instead of weaknesses. There is infinitely more that binds us than sets us apart, and the sorrows and stress that each of us face are universal to all human beings — and yes, all Stanford students, as invincible and perfect as we may perceive others to be. We don’t have to feel alone. No one is perfect, no one is always happy, we all fail and we all feel overwhelmed sometimes. It’s okay to break down these facades that we may carry. Don’t be afraid to open up and be vulnerable. If you’re not comfortable doing that with friends or an RA, call CAPS at 650-723-3785 or the BRIDGE at 650-723-3392, both of which are confidential and 24/7. Nothing’s “too small” or insignificant.
It’s hard to unlearn habits of a lifetime so we must make an active and conscious attempt to develop the habit of self-compassion. Like any other muscle, self-compassion is one that can be improved with practice. When things go badly, remind yourself that difficulty is a part of life that everyone goes through, and you are not alone. Imagine you’re talking with your friend, who has come to you despondent and suffering. What would you say to him or her? Give yourself the space, time, kindness and affirmation that you would give a friend who came to you with the same feelings. Forgive yourself of your flaws — be patient and understanding of them, just as you would for those of your friends. We are frequently hardest on ourselves more than anyone else. Go on a “self-compassion diet” instead of one revolving around self-discipline, deprivation and neglect.
Belinda Chiang ‘10 MS ‘11