I’m standing in the kitchen talking to one of my best friends. We’re both crying. And we don’t have much time.
The kids will be home soon. The visit will end. We’ll be back to communicating sporadically via time zone-challenged texts.
“I’m having this crisis of confidence,” she says. “At work. As a parent.”
“How come you can’t see yourself the way I see you?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Go and see someone. Tell them you need to change the tape in your head. Tell them you need help switching out the mirrors so you can see yourself differently. Please.”
I’m begging her. “Life is so short. We’re halfway through it — if we’re lucky! You can’t waste any more time thinking you’re not enough.”
Will she go? Between them, she and her partner log 80 hours a week at work. She has three kids under seven, chickens to tend, she makes her own freaking ketchup and is studying a language in her spare time. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for self-help, or herself, full stop.
It’s not enough that I, her kids, her husband, her other friends and her co-workers, see her as a fantastic human being. It wouldn’t matter if we stood at her shoulder chanting it. She needs to know it for herself. Feel it, sweet and steady, rising in her belly, when she wakes up, breathes in, addresses the day.
It’s not her self-esteem that needs a boost.
The research is in and it’s definitive. Self-esteem is a con. The whole movement is a failed experiment that bequeathed us a generation of narcissists and easy-to-manipulate consumers. It derives from feeling better than others, special, above-average, admired by other people.
According to Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, what most of us need, instead, is mega dose of self-compassion.
Self-compassion isn’t contingent on what other people think or how well they appear to be doing. It is grounded in self-kindness and “an understanding that all people are imperfect, and all people have imperfect lives.”
Everyone struggles. That’s just human.
As Neff told the Atlantic Monthly, self-compassion is “treating yourself with the same kindness, care, compassion, as you would treat those you care about — your good friends, your loved ones. The sense of self-worth that comes from being kind to yourself is much more stable over time than the sense of self-worth that comes from judging yourself positively.”
Self-compassion is there whether you succeed or fail (not so with self-esteem). It helps people cope with divorce, pain, age, setbacks. Is linked to better immune function and better health. Self-compassionate people are more likely to exercise and eat well, more likely to go to the doctor.
“Caring for yourself, not wanting yourself to suffer, it’s not self-indulgent, it’s not selfish. It leads to better relationships. It’s quite remarkable how much research there is supporting these ideas.”
How do you get some?
Put your hands on your heart and say ahhh.
The physiological compassion system is triggered with physical warmth, gentle touch and soothing vocalizations. “Yes, it’s touchy-feely,” says Neff, “but don’t underestimate it. We are mammals at the end of the day.”
Once your caregiving system is switched on, it’s then easier to talk to yourself kindly. Doesn’t feel natural? Channel one of your closest friends.
“Most of us have a lot more experience being compassionate to others than to ourselves.”
The last day of Paul Cumin’s Instagram takeover for the Wellness Almanac, he shared a commencement speech given by George Saunders.
The commencement speech has become a contemporary art form, an intimate chat with viral potential, not unlike the TED talk, and Saunders’ is one of the best.
It’s worthy in its entirety, but the core advice that pulled me in was: be kind. Life is short. Over time, we all become kinder, because life has a way of tenderizing us — we age, soften, get broken, realize it’s harder than it looks.
As Saunders urged a graduating class of go-getting, privileged young Americans: get a jumpstart on it early.
I loved his entire speech, but before I began to scratch it into my arm with a razor blade and the ink from a ballpoint pen, I stopped. I realized I needed to add a caveat. Kindness is good. Only, you’ve got to start first with yourself. If you can’t treat yourself with kindness and compassion, the rest becomes an unsustainable sham, and all the compliments in the world amount to so much noise.
But I can’t tell that to anyone. I just have to start with me. A hot bath. And a cup of tea. And a nice little pep talk in which I try and sound as much like my best friend, talking back to me, as I can.