Why self-compassion is more useful than MacGyver with a roll of duct tape

You can solve a lot of problems with duct tape, but for others you need something a lot more powerful.

All problems can be solved through the application of logic, brute force or duct tape. That was pretty much what I learnt growing up, watching MacGyver. Many years later I was introduced to the idea of self-compassion and to be honest, it sounded like some wishy-washy hippy-trippy crap to me. Self-compassion? How was that supposed to solve anything? What was I supposed to do anyway – treat myself like some poor injured kitten?

I didn’t really get what was meant by self-compassion. It also didn’t sound very manly. After all, whenever MacGyver was in a tight spot, he didn’t rely on self-compassion. He solved every problem imaginable with his brains, his muscles and a few other bits and bobs that happened to be lying around.

It is however best not to base all your life decisions on the wisdom gleaned from 80’s TV shows (things didn’t end up so well for a lot of my former idols). While somewhat more boring, psychological research can provide a far more solid grounding. There is now a growing body of evidence that shows practising self-compassion can play a powerful protective role and lead to a wide range of psychological benefits.

To see for myself whether self-compassion was all it was cracked up to be, I improvised a couple of my own experiments.

Experiment 1. There’s no need to be such a …
We all have an inner critic. Mine is a bit of a… let’s just say ‘meanie’. He comes up with a lot of harsh stuff that I wouldn’t dare say about anyone else. Like a schoolyard bully he follows me around, just waiting for an opportunity to call me stupid, useless or pathetically bad at golf. It’s really not a great relationship at all.

While some believe it’s this harsh inner critic which spurs them on, psychological research shows quite the opposite. Constant internal criticism is known to reduce confidence and performance.

Hypothesis
By changing the way I interact with my inner critic, I can somehow stop him from being such a meanie and MacGyver my way to improved self-worth and mental wellbeing.

Method

  1. Mindfully observe all the harsh criticisms that come my way. Take note of how harsh they are, how frequent they are and the type of language being used.
  2. Rather than battle my inner critic each time or buy into the thought, simply say ‘There you are again my inner critic! Thanks for that, but it’s really not useful’.
  3. Let my inner cheerleader be heard. Regularly stop to take notice of accomplishments and things done well, rather than focus solely on shortcomings.*

* If I start sounding like Kanye West I’ve gone too far. Cease experiment.

Observations

It turned out my inner critic was coming up with some pretty nasty stuff on a surprisingly regular basis. Self-criticism was a bad habit that was fairly deeply ingrained. Once I got the hang of simply observing these critical thoughts and thanking my brain for them, they started to become less frequent and less powerful. While my inner cheerleader was never quite as boastful as Kanye, throughout the experiment my self-talk did become far less harsh and one-sided.

Results
My inner critic hasn’t disappeared – if I miss a two-foot putt while playing golf he still calls me something rather nasty. This unhelpful voice has however lost a lot of power. I can now smile at my inner critic and quickly regain composure, rather than completing a rapid Hulk-like transformation into an angry club-throwing maniac. I realise these disparaging messages are not important or wise or who I am. While I can still occasionally be hard on myself, my self-criticism is less harsh and I also pay attention to the positives.

Experiment 2. Enough is enough
Complete this sentence: I am not ______ enough.

If you are like me, you can probably find plenty of words to fill the gap. Most of us spend much our lives telling ourselves we are not smart, healthy, confident, thin, tall, attractive, athletic, strong, rich, successful or just plain good enough. We tend to focus overly on what we feel we are lacking and forget about all that we have. We create enormous, unrealistic expectations. We then fiercely criticise ourselves if we don’t live up to them and run ourselves ragged pursuing stuff which may not be all that important.

Hypothesis
I can MacGyver my way to greater satisfaction and less stress by giving thanks for what I have, focusing less on perceived shortcomings and not running around like a headless chicken chasing after stuff which actually isn’t that important.

Method

  1. When I have thoughts that “I am not _____ enough”, simply observe them and use mindfulness skills to not get tangled up in them.
  2. Refrain from comparing my stomach muscles to those of professional athletes, my clothes to those of movie stars, my income to the incomes of bank CEOs and my beaten-up Mazda to all the shiny fancy cars which overtake me.
  3. Regularly take time to give thanks for what I’ve got and remind myself that it actually is enough.
  4. Allow what I do to be enough, no matter how tempting it is to pursue perfection.

Observations

I worry about some pretty pointless stuff. Apparently, my beard is not thick enough, my little pinkie toe is not straight enough and this article is not nearly entertaining enough. Well I guess that’s just bad luck, because right now I am applying step 4 of the method. I am saying “enough really is enough” and it’s a kind of wild, liberating feeling.

Results
I’m actually pretty ok with my patchy beard, my well-hidden six pack and my twisted little toe. As much as I wouldn’t mind a shiny new car, I like my current one and am thankful that it gets me places without breaking down. While conducting this experiment I took on the world’s most thankless task (moving house) and managed to do so without pushing myself to ridiculous extremes and ending up stressed out and exhausted. Saying “enough is enough” really can be a powerful form of self-compassion.

While my experiments clearly wouldn’t stand up to any level of scientific scrutiny, for me these simple approaches produced some quite noticeable shifts. So why not try your own experiments and see what works for you?

Psychologists and Researchers such as Paul Gilbert, Kristin Neff, Christopher Gremer and Tara Brach advocate self-compassion as the only means by which we can disarm the destructive force of excessive self-criticism, shame, guilt and embarrassment. Below are a few other simple ways you can practise self-compassion.

  • Rather than say ‘yes’ to everything right away, take a pause before committing yourself. Consider whether you can spare the time and energy and if it’s something you really want to do. Politely saying ‘no’ can be a very powerful act of self-compassion.
  • Put yourself to the top of your priority list. All those annoying chores aren’t nearly as important as you are. Put that yoga class ahead of the ironing, that bike ride ahead of mowing the lawn or that long hot bath ahead of cleaning out the fridge.
  • Don’t skimp on yourself. Spend a little extra on good healthy food. See a physio if you are struggling with an injury. See a psychologist if you could use the support. Do whatever is needed to look after your mind and body. You deserve it.