Sometimes I feel as if I am the world’s worst psychiatrist. Mostly this happens when I cannot seem to communicate an idea that should be straightforward. This happened to me last week when I was working with a group of patients on self-compassion.
All my patients are adolescents and adolescence can be a very challenging time of life. My young patients too often hear that they are doing something “all wrong”. Even when they aren’t being told these words, they can still feel as if they are “all wrong”. This is hard on self-esteem so, in the summer, when it is quieter in my practice, I will work with the small group of patients in the inpatient program on different cognitive concepts. Last week, they decided to work on self-compassion.
I like to explain self-compassion as treating yourself the way you would treat your best friend. This definition can be very helpful in communicating what self-compassion is like because most of my patients are great best friends to other people. They are empathic and compassionate. They would know exactly what to say to a friend who is struggling.
Since this is the case, why is it so difficult for them to treat themselves as kindly as they would treat anyone else? Why does it take so much practice?
The main reason, I have learned, is something that is true for all of us. We are not used to remembering that we have a kind and wise voice within ourselves. When a friend is in difficulty or suffering, that voice is immediately available but when we need that voice ourselves, when we need to be our own best friend, that voice is not available. Self- criticism is so much easier than self-compassion.
Most of us grew up thinking that we must always work to improve ourselves. Self-criticism comes naturally to us because we are always seeking to read more, learn more, do more. We are never good enough.
While many of these ideas resonate with my patients, last week it seemed that everyone was struggling to do even the smallest kind things for themselves. We sat with different exercises that I found, as well as exercises that people found for themselves. Every person’s self-esteem was so low and self-criticism was turned up as high as it could go.
In frustration I blurted out, “I am just not getting this right!”
“Dr. Beck,” someone said, “a little more self-compassion, please. You’re doing the best you can.”
That is surely the silver lining to this cloud: sometimes people will do as you say and not as you do. Sometimes, you can be right even when you’re wrong.