When Self-Compassion Becomes Self-Sabotage

Yes, it’s very possible to give yourself too much of a break

Photo: PM Images/Getty Images

Maria wanted to make a budget. The 27-year-old customer experience representative — newly married and normally quite organized — had put herself in charge of the task in the hopes of socking away some extra savings. Then the pandemic hit, and all budgeting bets were off. Instead of wrapping up her remote-work days in front of a new spreadsheet, she’d stretch for an hour of yoga to temper the general overwhelm she felt. “I’d say to myself, ‘This is what you need right now,’” she tells Elemental. Maria said it almost every day.

It was, Maria reasoned, the self-compassionate thing to do: Why tack a stressful item onto her to-do list when she was already feeling defeated by Covid-19 and quarantine? A quick workout or a long binge session were kinder to her mental health than making a budget, Maria decided.

But her self-care routine was causing harm: Maria was delaying setting savings goals. And fees were hitting the couple’s savings account because they weren’t keeping the required balance in the bank. “I would say, ‘Meditating right now will put me in a better headspace than calling people at the bank and sitting on hold for 40 minutes,’” Maria explains. “I was losing money because I couldn’t sit down and do this thing. I was telling myself to do yoga instead.”

Paul, a 45-year-old business owner in Ontario, Canada, says he tried to avoid coronavirus-related stress by cutting his work hours. “I thought the pandemic was a prime opportunity to take some time to myself,” he says. But he fell behind on emails and even lost some clients. “Ironically, that made me more stressed than I was before I took a break,” he says.

Covid-19 has been relentless in its daily horrors. In an attempt to manage stress and sadness, many have turned to self-compassion, looking for the breaks an overworked brain so desperately needs. Done purposely, that proverbial slack is a healing salve; but done incorrectly or in excess, that slack is no longer self-compassion — it’s self-indulgence and sabotage, experts say.

“I was losing money because I couldn’t sit down and do this thing. I was telling myself to do yoga instead.”

Self-compassion is treating yourself with kindness and alleviating yourself from suffering plus realizing that your suffering or failures are part of a shared human experience, says Kristin Neff, PhD, a psychologist and author of the book Self Compassion. And while self-compassion is needed during any difficult time, Neff says that it’s even more important during a pandemic. “Covid-19 is like a war we’re all fighting,” Neff says. “Self-compassion is absolutely crucial for us to be able to get through it both intact and healthy.”

Because true self-compassion reduces suffering, it should never cause it, Neff explains. If what you’re doing in the name of self-compassion is causing pain — costing you money or clients, as Maria and Paul have experienced, or something else — then you’re probably doing it wrong. Here, according to experts, are a few targeted tweaks you can make to your self-care routine so you can be self-compassionate without being self-destructive.

Be (very) honest with yourself. If part of being self-compassionate is easing suffering, then it’s important to know what — exactly — will do the trick. Instead of “going through the days like a zombie,” Neff says, and relying on a comfortable self-care routine that may not meet our needs, we should pause and ask ourselves an important question: What do I need right now to be healthy and happy? “If you don’t even bother asking it, you’ll be on autopilot, and you may find yourself flushing a whole day down the toilet on Netflix reruns,” she says. But if you take the time to ask the question and answer it honestly, “you’ll come up with the [healthy] answer.”

Because true self-compassion reduces suffering, it should never cause it.

Add joy to your everyday. Tim Desmond, a psychologist and author of How to Stay Human in a F*cked Up World, says that it’s important to strike a balance between easing suffering and feeding joy. “And we need to be aware of where we are in that balance,” he says, suggesting we ask ourselves, “Do I need to spend more time taking care of the parts of me that are suffering, or do I need to spend a little more time cultivating joy?” Maria says she’s found balance between the two — sometimes simultaneously. Rather than avoiding working on her budget altogether, she now pairs the unpleasant activity with something she loves, like a glass of wine or a podcast. “I enjoy it and don’t avoid it because stress isn’t the main element of [the activity],” Maria says.

Treat your physiological distress. “There is a big difference between the physiological distress in your body and the story you’re telling yourself about it,” says Desmond. Stress might elevate your heart rate or cause tension in your shoulders, but you don’t have to dodge work deadlines to relieve those symptoms. Instead, Desmond recommends sending thoughts of love and acceptance directly to the part of your body undergoing the stressful sensation. By focusing on the sensations, we’re less likely “to let our impulses be in charge of our lives,” Desmond says.

(Similarly, Paul says he’s meditating, and it’s easing his emotional and physical stress.)

Give yourself acceptance. Guilt and self-loathing are the enemies of self-compassion. Kindness, however, is key. So, if you’ve caused yourself harm during the pandemic, lapsing on to-do list items in favor of less fruitful endeavors, you can’t beat yourself up. Instead, Neff says, you should treat yourself as you would a child, saying, “The bottom line is it’s okay, and I love you regardless. But because I care about you, I really want you to try something different,” she says. “And then, with that type of encouraging attitude, think about what you can learn and how to do things better.”

She continues, saying, “We’re so ingrained to think that being kind to yourself just means, like, slacking off. But research shows that people who are really self-compassionate after a failure actually work harder and try to succeed more than people who just beat themselves up after a failure.”

Jillian Kramer is a journalist whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Travel + Leisure, and more.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store