“Be kind to yourself.” The age old adage that every therapist loves to espouse to their client. And for good reason. The practice of self-compassion has arguably more research behind it than any other intervention to improve a vast array of mental health struggles, including (but not limited to) anxiety, depression, trauma, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. And still, many people struggle to practice it. There are many reasons why this can be, but one of the most common ones that I have come up against as a practicing therapist is this:
“I feel like I am letting myself off the hook.”
I used to push on this as a therapist. I would try to challenge it, because I truly believe that self-compassion is vitally important to our mental health. But somewhere along the journey, I realized that maybe I needed to get curious about it. What I was hearing from my clients is “I don’t want to be kind to myself,” when in reality, what many of them were saying was “I want to be kind to myself AND I also want to hold myself accountable for my missteps. I want to learn and to grow.”
Holding ourselves accountable or responsible for our missteps is a challenging process to navigate. Many people may resonate with the realization that they actually don’t know how to do this without veering into the territory of self-punishment or self-criticism. Sometimes it feels like berating ourselves is the answer, and yet we know that does absolutely nothing to improve our mental health or our own personal growth. Many times it simply elicits a feeling of shame where we end up engaging in shame-fueled behaviors (also commonly called “self-sabotage”) and we feel worse than when we began our self-blame campaign.
Over time, I began to wonder how to bridge the gap between self-compassion and personal responsibility and realized that there isn’t all that much of a gap to bridge. Enter what I like to call “compassionate accountability,” the practice of taking responsibility for ourselves, our words, our behaviors, and our feelings, while also acknowledging that we can do all of this in a compassionate way. In fact, taking responsibility for our actions WITHOUT blaming or shaming ourselves in many ways could be viewed as an act of compassion.
So how do we practice compassionate accountability?
The basis is still the same – we come from a place of self-compassion. I think the distinction here that many people struggle with is that sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is to look at ourselves honestly rather than to avoid or numb when looking at the parts of ourselves that may be more challenging or triggering.
HOW we talk to ourselves is everything when it comes to compassionate accountability.
There is a big difference between saying to ourselves:
“Wow, I yelled at my partner this morning over something small, what is wrong with me? Why am I like this? I’ll never get better at communicating.”
“I wonder what was happening this morning that triggered me so easily? I noticed that I yelled at my partner and I wish that I had communicated differently. I am only human and know that I was having a really tough moment. I want to explore this pattern more, and I also would like to apologize to my partner for what I said.”
In scenario one, we have launched immediately into self-blame or criticism, which is the breeding ground for self-punishment. Responding to ourselves in this way is likely to elicit shame. When we feel shame, we feel that we are bad, not that we have done something bad. Beginning from this place both inhibits our growth as individuals and in this case, our relationships too.
In scenario two, we begin from a place of curiosity. We have compassion for our missteps, while acknowledging that we would like to take accountability for our actions by making amends. We do not berate ourselves because let’s be real, we all make mistakes. We can learn more about ourselves in this process while also better supporting our mental health.
If you would like to practice compassionate accountability yourself, here are some tips:
- Get Curious
Curiosity is the breeding ground for compassion. There is a lot more space to access compassion for ourselves, even the behaviors we are less proud of, if we also choose to get curious about what they mean. This is also the basis for accountability. We cannot take meaningful accountability without insight. Self-blame, criticism, or punishment will not yield insight, but curiosity will.
- Talk to yourself like you would a loved one or child.
Many people struggle to access compassion for themselves because they don’t know what self-compassion can even sound like. A great way to shift how we talk to ourselves and to do so from a place of compassion is to talk to ourselves the way we would someone we love or a child. We tend to be more compassionate to others and less hard on children specifically. You may even visualize yourself as a young child and think about what this version of you would need to hear if they made a mistake.
- Consider what accountability looks like AFTER you have established a stance of self-compassion.
After you have connected to yourself from a stance of compassion, THEN you can begin to explore what accountability looks like. Maybe it’s as simple as reflecting on the experience and integrating the lesson to make changes in the future. Maybe it involves making amends or repairing a relationship. There are many paths forward, but starting from a place of compassion will pave the way for meaningful accountability rather than self-punishment.
Written by: Macauley Cliffe, LCSW