The holiday season is quickly approaching, and while this time of year tends to bring out our merriment and empathy, it can also be incredibly taxing on our relationship with ourselves. Experts say that compassion towards others will internally reward us with feelings of happiness, connection, and joy, but we struggle to treat ourselves with the same level of compassion that we would give towards a loved one or stranger.
We live in a culture where impossibly high personal expectations are becoming the standard norm for functioning. Mistakes feel unforgivable and failure is ‘not an option’. We develop highly critical internalized voices that punish us when we are not good enough and criticize us when we mess up. It becomes an easy and natural response to berate ourselves when we do not live up to our own expectations. Unfortunately, a lack of self-compassion has been shown to have a physiological impact on our physical health.
Neuroscience tells us that self-compassion is a physiological process that occurs within our bodies. The process of soothing our own struggles and pain is triggered by the mammalian care-giving system (found through-out the limbic area of the brain). This particular system, also involved in parenting and attachment/bonding, is correlated with the release of oxytocin, a powerful hormone and neurotransmitter found in the brain. Oxytocin increases the feelings of calmness, generosity, trust, and connectedness. It is what allows us to feel compassion and kindness towards ourselves and others.
Self-criticism, on the other hand, has the opposite effect on our bodies. The fight-or-flight response is triggered in response to threatening events in the environment. Our threat detector (the amygdala) is the part of our brain that decides whether or not there is a threat to us. If the answer is “yes, there is a threat”, the amygdala initiates the processes that produces the fight or flight response. Even though the system is set in place to detect physical threats, it is also activated by emotional attacks (by others or ourselves). Self-criticism can increase our levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which can make us feel stressed, anxious, depressed, and/or feeling bad in general. Oxytocin, on the other hand, has the ability to sooth and decrease cortisol levels. Those who have more self-compassion are more likely to have better mental health and have decreased anxiety, depression, and stress. They are also more likely to be optimistic, happy, and resilient.
To start developing increased self-compassion, consider utilizing the following exercises during the holiday season:
When faced with an onslaught of negative self-talk, as yourself “Would I say these words to a friend, family member, or stranger?” Chances are, you wouldn’t! Extend the same level of kindness and respect to yourself as you would to someone that you cared about.
Take a moment and be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that you are doing the best that you can, and that no one can be perfect. Draw upon the kindness and care that you have for others and extend it towards yourself. Reframe your negative talk to a more compassionate and supportive one.
Sometimes we isolate ourselves when we feel inadequate or short on our goals. Reach out to a friend or special person that has earned the right to hear about your struggles. Ask for a hug or time to talk. Touch can be a powerful, soothing tool, and a listening ear can help you feel heard and validated. A good friend will empathize with your struggle and help you to recognize your worth.
Self-compassion is good for you, especially during the busy and stressful holidays. Our thoughts and cognitions are incredibly powerful and have the ability to change our body chemistry. Whether those thoughts are directed at others or ourselves, the release of oxytocin (the feel good hormone) will occur. Take some time now to work on developing a soothing and kind inner voice. Your body will thank you!
For more exercises and research on self-compassion, check out Dr. Kristin Neff’s work at self-compassion.org.
Kylie Chaffin, Licensed Mental Health Counselor.