Being Kind to Yourself

Martin Seligman tells us that those of us who are pessimists have deficiencies in our self-defence mechanisms. As he puts it, such people when faced with something that is not going right in their lives convince themselves that the problem is:

  • Personal – ie it is due to their own personal shortcomings;
  • Pervasive – ie it afflicts many areas of their life; and
  • Permanent – ie they will never be without it.


Optimists on the other hand have strategies to convince themselves to the contrary (but sometimes avoiding reality).


An obsession with these perceived failures leads to depression.


Our ego provides us with an unrelenting commentatory on our behaviour.  When we identify too closely with this commentator and its incessant criticism we punish ourselves for our perceived shortcomings. The manifestation of such punishment is what we call depression.


Now as Dorothy Rowe, the fabulous Australian psychologist and author tells us, depressives are “good” people. The problem is that they set their standards so high that they can never be “good” enough! The harder you are on yourself, the louder the critical voice gets. This problem of judging and evaluating oneself leads to the trap of rumination where a person is fated to go over and over their shortcomings reinforcing their inadequacies.


Ruby Wax, a self-confessed depressive, actor, editor of the brilliant comedy series “Absolutely Fabulous” and in adulthood an Oxford graduate in psychology and neuroscience, writes:


“If a friend was being abused you wouldn’t shout at her to stop suffering, you would soothe her pain. So when you’re possessed by the demons of your own making, you should treat yourself just like you would that friend. The main thing that calms your mind is compassion for yourself.”


When an optimist is lead to understand that the issue of self-concept is one that is really under their own control, they are happy with the realisation that it is within their purview to do something about it. When a depressive is led to the same understanding, they are appalled by their own personal failure.


Now, as the good Dr Phil and I pointed out in The Myth of Nine to Five, if we are to live a reasonably fulfilled life it is necessary that our social needs are met. Because of our social needs, human beings seek recognition, affiliation, companionship, encouragement and solace. In healthy families these gifts are given without condition. But many of us are not so lucky to have had such nourishing environments.


At the very beginning of life the baby is accepted unconditionally. Mothers are no doubt particularly well-equipped to do so through genetic influences. The characteristics of these little creatures, being crumpled, vociferous and incontinent seemed hardly designed to gain our affection. Surprisingly most of us, even those who cannot or will not experience the state of motherhood feel similarly. (Obviously if the baby is believed to be genetically close to us our genetic inheritance would also be a factor.) Nothing a child does at this stage seems significant enough for us to withdraw our regard.


But as the child matures a subtle process begins where in many environments there is a shift from meeting the child’s needs to meeting the parents or carer’s needs. It is then that the child is expected to conform to the whims and desires of these powerful people who can manipulate the child to their own ends by withholding from them the wherewithal to meet their needs, especially their social/emotional needs. They learn to ‘behave’ in order to meet the supposed needs of others believing that their inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour (according to the criterion of the carer) causes pain and hurt to the carer as manifested in their anger or other negative emotional reactions to such behaviour. Positive regard is given on the condition that the child acts out the behaviour desired by the caregiver.


As they grow older and move out of the family environment into other social environments they meet the same basic responses as they did in their childhood, only now regard and inclusion are received by conforming to the group norms – even if the group is seen by the larger community as ‘anti-social’. Hence as they mature into adulthood they will have undergone a wide range of social learning, which, in interaction with their genetic inheritance, largely comprises their available repertoire of responses to the world.


It is doubtful whether any of us could ever be totally free of the need to identify with others (except perhaps autistics and psychopaths) and the unconscious dependency that such identification brings. There are of course benefits from this dependency as we feel the comfort of belonging to this group, or that club, and being friends with this person or that. The price we pay for access to the sense of well-being we share in these relationships is the greater or lesser degree of subjugation it brings to our sense of freedom.


The time at which we are mostly imprinted with social learning is our childhood and the institution most influential in that regard is the family unit. This is because it is in that period of our lives when we are most dependent that our behaviours are the most malleable. Because it is our time of greatest need for others, we struggle to please them to ensure our continued physical, but more importantly, emotional support. Much of our behaviour which is deemed dysfunctional can be traced to the inadequacy of the support we got in our childhood and youth. Whilst we needed the physical support of our parents to survive physically, more importantly we needed the emotional support to grow and develop as adequately functioning human beings.


Identification with parents can often be driven by fear.


“I must be the same as they are or they will be angry.” ‘Good’ is what parents like and ‘Bad’ is what they dislike. This qualitative, arbitrary morality drives us to model ourselves on them and take on the same foundation opinions.


“Many adults exhibit modes of behaviour which are not based upon reason or upon conscious choice, but upon parental attitudes which were introjected in childhood and which have never been discarded even though they may be inappropriate to present conditions.” (Anthony Storr, The Integrity of Personality).


Emotional security is more likely to be attained in a household where the parents are secure enough to tolerate their children being different from themselves and are relaxed and mature enough to form relationships with their children even though their children are substantially different. Such children are more likely to be able to resist the excesses of their peer group as they transit the teen years into mature adulthood.


When we acknowledge we are all vulnerable to the shaping factors of our genetics and our social conditioning, it is immediately apparent that the self-loathing of those who are depressed is entirely misplaced. They certainly need to be kinder to themselves.


However, despite the fact that cognitive behavioural therapy often provides relief, it is unlikely that those so afflicted will be convinced by rational arguments.


In other essays we have examined the good Dr Phil’s recipe for psychological maturity. Viz.

To Know Yourself> Accept Yourself>Forget Yourself


Those who are so unkind to themselves will struggle to “accept themselves” and then rather than “forget themselves” will, on the contrary obsess about themselves.


There are two strategies that seem to work for such people. The first is the cultivation of mindfulness. Through meditation practice we can learn to still the voice of the inner critic (as well as bringing a myriad of other benefits). I have written about this previously.


But the other strategy is to indulge yourself in empathy and altruism. When I ask people to recount the best times of their lives it is never when they have been self-obsessed. When you genuinely become involved in improving the welfare of others you soon forget your own malaise.


The Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, be altruistic. If you want to be happy, be altruistic!”


Ruby Wax puts it this way:


“Not only is compassion good for our health, but the impact of the hormones we produce in ourselves pass from person to person. We can pass our neuroses but we can also pass our feelings of warmth and kindness. You get a sudden rush of oxytocin which makes you feel safe and soothed and therefore switches it on in others around you. We are social animals, not made for isolation, so all our feelings ripple out to the next person, working like neural wi-fi (the emotional pass the parcel). When you’re calm and at ease you have the free space in your head to listen to someone else, be curious about his life so that he feels he matters. When you get into the habit of passing warmth, humour and compassion, I’d say you might just experience what happiness is like. (To me, it feels like someone is tickling my heart.) If you pass on these qualities and the other person lights up with happiness, it comes right back to you.”