Self-Compassion and Striving for Good Enough
Last year I decided to lighten my workload. I was trying to do way too much and felt like I was drowning, like so many mothers trying to find a reasonable work-life balance. I made hard decisions to cut things out. And suddenly, I was less busy than most people around me. But that didn’t sit well with me either. Doing less, it turns out, can be quite uncomfortable.
I’ve always found reassurance in the ideas of the great pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. One of his notions is that mothers just need to be good enough, not perfect. Children simply need a nurturing environment provided by ordinarily, good parents. I find Winnicott to be incredibly kind and generous.
Winnicott’s deemphasis of perfection is not just relevant to mothering. So many of us compare ourselves to others who seem to do so much so well. We can be our own harshest critic and judge. As I became less busy, I compared myself to the high-achievements of my peers. Winnicott’s thinking, I find, helps to foster a kind of gentleness toward oneself, which helps to balance perfectionistic tendencies and the heaviness of the shame. This is self-compassion in action.
Buddhist teachings have told us for thousands of years that self-compassion is the key to a healthy mind. And current research also highlights its importance in mental health. For example, a study was just published highlighting that the practice of self-compassion may protect against symptoms of depression and anxiety in patients with bipolar disorder. It can also mediate between perfectionistic thinking and anxiety as well as difficulty with regulating emotions. I often witness self-compassion skills to be effective not just in bipolar disorder, but with managing everyday living.
This idea of self-compassion was reinforced last week by my Yoga instructor, Gregor Singleton, when he encouraged the class to find affection for our bodies while in challenging postures. I appreciated the concept, but it takes a lot of work to feel that kind of affection for our bodies in a yoga studio—a place, like so many wellness spaces, that can be fertile ground for perfectionistic thinking loaded with comparison and judgement.
So, how do we become compassionate and affectionate toward ourselves?
Tuning into our inner voice — our gut instincts — is a good start. This intuition is a good guide in telling us what we need and how to get there. We just have to learn how to quiet our mind so we can hear this inner voice, however drowned out by negativity and noise. If we learn to listen to it closely, we can usually find some compassion.
Meditation and mindfulness can help to access this inner wisdom and get familiar with our inner critic—how often it shows up and what it says. Once we become aware of the back and forth between our inner critic and our more compassionate and intuitive voice, we can (with practice) choose to favor compassion. Meeting with an instructor, coach, or therapist can be a helpful way to get started. There are also evidence-based Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) eight week courses all over the world.
Keep at it. Focus and refocus. Eventually, that feeling of overload can give way to a growing sense of peacefulness. We can then engage with those around us in a way that feels more authentic and with less concern about what others think. Then it becomes easier to say to ourselves at the end of a long day, “Today, I think I was good enough.” And that’s good medicine.