Self-compassion and creatives – a beginner’s guide

Kindness for ourselves is one of the best ways to self-motivate – so why don't we do it more?
A woman hugs her knees on a hillside, she is seen from behind.

Emmy and AACTA Award-winning producer turned creative sector coach Ellenor Cox provides regular insight and advice for supercharging your creative career. In her last column, she wrote about how to tackle self doubt in order grow your confidence. Here she identifies key strategies for connecting with compassion for ourselves and our endeavours.

‘If your compassion does not include yourself then it’s incomplete’

Buddha

Successful creative people are synonymous with the traits of positivity, curiosity, flexibility, fearlessness and determination. Sounds like a wonderful life, doesn’t it!

Let’s discuss the elephant in the room that co-exists with all these expectations then, and that’s our inner critic.

We know the voice all too well, the critical subtitle to our every action as we go about our day: ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ‘You’re failing, big time,’ or ‘Get your act together.’

One of the key reasons that our creativity and our inner critic ride shotgun through our lives is that the act of creativity is such a vulnerable one. When showcasing our endeavours publicly, we are constantly exposing ourselves to subjective judgement and scrutiny. We even work in a sector where ‘Critic’ is a regarded vocational choice.

However, ‘waiting for inspiration is like waiting for a train at an airport,’ said the author Leigh Michaels. Creative people learn to push through inspiration droughts, disregard both internal and external criticism and do something creative anyway.

How well they deal with these challenges is all about how well they’ve mastered the notion of self-compassion. Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, offers this definition:

‘Self-compassion is the ability to notice our own suffering and to be moved by it, making us want to actively do something to alleviate our own suffering.’

Why We Need to Have Compassion for Our Inner Critic

We know how much it hurts when we say to ourselves ‘I’m an idiot!’ So why do we do it? As soon as we ask ourselves this question, we often just pile on more self-criticism: ‘That’s why I’m such a loser, I’m always putting myself down.’

The trick is to not beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up in the vain hope that somehow it will help us stop beating ourselves up …

Instead, take a step back, and give your inner critic some slack. In its counterproductive, ineffective way, our inner critic is actually trying to keep us safe as part of our evolutionary response to threat.

When we sense danger, our response is typically fight, flight, freeze, or submit: we turn and fight the threat, run like hell away from the threat, play dead in hopes the threat will pass, or show our bellies and hope the threat will be placated.

While these strategies work well in the animal kingdom, for humans these responses often just make things worse and that’s because the threat that we’re facing is often a threat to our self-concept.  

We confuse our thoughts with that of reality and with our inner critic on high rotation and with the volume turned right up, we constantly see ourselves as being under siege. So our threat defence system uses these strategies:

Fight: we beat ourselves up emotionally, using cruel language to cut ourselves down.

Flight: we become anxious and restless, fleeing from ourselves by numbing out or using distractions like food or alcohol.

Freeze: we get stuck in rumination, thinking about our perceived inadequacies over and over again.

Submit: we admit that yes, we’re terrible, and accept all the harsh judgments we throw at ourselves.

It’s important then to realise that when our inner critic attacks, at root it is trying to ward off danger. It wants us to be happy, but doesn’t know a better way to go about it.

Fostering self-compassion is the key tool to having our best interests at heart. It allows us to relate to ourselves in a way that’s forgiving, accepting, and loving when situations might be less than optimal.

It not only brings us closer to ourselves but also to others as just like other people, we:

  • make mistakes 
  • we go through hard times, 
  • and experience difficult emotions that lead us to act in ways we later wish we hadn’t

How to use the key components of self-compassion

Self-compassion is refreshing in its premise. It initially takes conscious effort even to become aware of our mental processes, but most worthwhile things do require practice and the following tips can become effortless over time and provide the effective armour that we need against our inner critic.

Self-compassion has three components:

1. Self-kindness (instead of self-judgment)

Self-kindness is about showing kindness and understanding toward ourselves when we fail at something, or when we are hurt. It’s a willingness to take care of ourselves and to recognise the negative influence of self-judgement and to treat ourselves with warmth instead.

Action Tips

  • Try to understand and show patience regarding your own perceived personality flaws.
  • Be tolerant of your own shortcomings.

Thought Tips

  1. ‘I forgive myself for feeling as upset/hurt/exasperated/etc. as I did earlier.’
  2. ‘That wasn’t my last chance to practice more patience/understanding/empathy/etc …’
  3. ‘I made a mistake/snapped/slipped a little today and that’s fine. Next time a situation like that comes around I’ll …’
  4. ‘It’s not something worth dwelling on, tomorrow you can react with more concern/tenderness/goodwill/etc …’
  5. ‘You understand why you responded that way and it’s OK. Next week you could make up for it by stopping to listen/showing that you care/etc …’

2. Common humanity (instead of isolation)

Embracing imperfection and making sense of our experience as ‘being part of something bigger’ means that we can accept our flaws and that we aren’t perfect. We go easy on ourselves for having limitations and rather than withdrawing we appreciate that others feel the same.

Action Tips

  • Perceive your shortcomings as natural aspects of the human condition;
  • View your difficulties as “a part of life that everyone goes through”; and
  • Remind yourself that others also feel inadequate at times, when you feel the same.

Thought Tips

  1. ‘Everybody feels anger/pain/jealousy at some point or another …’
  2. ‘The situation was a complicated one, and most people find themselves feeling frustrated in tricky situations like that …’
  3. ‘Nobody is perfect or immune from thinking the occasional fearful/irrational/defensive thought …’

3. Mindfulness (instead of over-identification)

Mindfulness entails acknowledging and labelling your own thoughts as opposed to reacting to them. The aim is to approach the experience with curiosity and detached interest and to neither hold onto or dismiss your thoughts and emotions, aiming to keep our feelings in balance when we experience something upsetting.

Action Tips

  • Maintain perspective when you fail at things that are important to you.
  • Adopt your emotions with curiosity and openness when you feel sad.

Thought Tips

  1.  ‘I felt angry/upset/impatient/etc. because of …’
  2. ‘I realise now that when […] happened, I reacted in the moment, and I felt regret/embarrassed/ashamed/etc. afterward.
  3. ‘Stepping back from it now, I accept that I was thinking hurtful/frustrated/annoyed thoughts when …
  4. ‘As I reflect on my behaviour earlier, I acknowledge that my reaction to […] was driven by feelings of disappointment/fear/doubt/etc.
  5. ‘Looking back now, I notice my thoughts and feelings from earlier today. At the time, the situation made me feel …’

Common misconceptions about self-compassion

The number-one reason people give for why they aren’t more self-compassionate is the fear that they will be too easy on themselves. Without constant self-criticism to spur myself on, people worry, won’t I just skip work, eat three tubs of ice cream and watch Netflix all day? In others words, isn’t self-compassion really the same thing as self-indulgence?

There are some persistent concerns and misconceptions when it comes to self-compassion. Here are five of the most common myths. 

Myth 1: Self-compassion is self pity 

‘If I open this can of worms, I will wallow in my feelings forever and never get anything done.’

Myth 2: Self-compassion is self excuse 

‘I will justify my own harmful behaviours and not take responsibility.’

Myth 3: Self compassion is self serving 

‘Caring for myself over others is selfish.’

Myth 4: Self-compassion equals self esteem

 ‘I don’t need it. I am already confident in myself and my abilities.’

Myth 5: Self compassion is de-motivating 

‘If I get too comfortable with my shortcomings now, I will stop taking action towards my goals.’

Extensive clinical research has dispelled these myths as psychologists have found that self-compassionate people have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, higher motivational characteristics, deeper personal connections, and markedly stronger emotional resilience.

So self-compassion is not the same as being easy on ourselves. It’s a way of nurturing ourselves so that we can reach our full potential.

Externalise your inner critic

By now I’m hoping that you’re clear that our inner critic has its best intentions for us – it wants us to be safe, to contribute, to succeed, to belong. 

Despite our best intentions, however, cultivating self-compassion can feel like an impossible task. 

The language of inadequacy that our inner critic speaks is mirrored back to us at work and at home – do more, be more, be different, stand out from the crowd. Naturally, we will feel like there’s no time to take a break, no space for being kind to ourselves. 

The first step in cultivating self-compassion is to acknowledge how hard it is to be self-compassionate in our complex world. The second steps are outlined above in the various action and thinking tips. Thirdly a highly popular practice has been developed by psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach who developed a self compassion practice called RAIN

The acronym consists of four steps: 

  1. Recognise what is going on. 
  2. Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.
  3. Investigate with interest and care. 
  4. Nurture with mindful self-compassion. 

The key to all of the above strategies is self-awareness. Catch yourself next time your internal dialogue is haranguing you and without further berating yourself for this discovery, apply some self-compassion, reassured in the knowledge that this is actually the most effective strategy to achieving your ideal outcome!

Read more insight and advice from Ellenor Cox in this ongoing series:

Ellenor Cox is a veteran Emmy and AACTA award winning producer now providing the industry with coaching and mentoring services. More information and extensive free resources available at www.ellenorcox.com.