Why is it natural to offer kindness to others, but not to ourselves? And why is it necessary to turn that self-love inward? In this bpHope article, Mindpath Health’s Elisabeth Netherton, MD, explains—and it’s not what you think.
Low self-worth & bipolar mood swings
Jeffrey H. says his past is riddled with opportunities for him to self-punish. And when his mood takes a dive, it’s even more tempting to dwell on those behaviors that go hand in hand with his bipolar I disorder.
“I’ve done a tremendous amount of work looking at how I can be a better person,” Jeffrey notes. “I used to behave out of fear and now it’s self-respect and self-love.”
That has meant cutting himself some slack when thinking about how his mania has caused problems, such as with overspending.
In short, he has learned to practice self-compassion.
Appreciating our inherent value
We often show compassion to others without thinking about it. If a friend feels like a failure because they were unsuccessful at something, it can be easy to extend concern, empathy, and love.
“Self-compassion is the ability to give ourselves grace even when we’re upset or frustrated with ourselves, or even when things aren’t going the way we wanted them to,” says Houston psychiatrist, Elisabeth Netherton, MD, Texas regional medical director at Mindpath Health.
“It’s about having regard for ourselves fundamentally as people who have inherent value and also make mistakes.”
That can be especially challenging when living with a mood disorder, since a predisposition to negativity, pessimism, and rumination is associated with depressive tendencies, or when picking up the pieces after a manic episode.
With bipolar’s ups and downs, the strains on relationships, employment, finance, and other parts of life can easily feed into self-condemnation and shame.
Shifting from a default of self-criticism to nonjudgment does not happen overnight. But with practice, replacing the demoralizing thought patterns of “stinking thinking” with kindness and compassion can have radical results—results documented by science.
A 2019 study found self-compassion to be a buffer not only against difficulties with emotion regulation but also against depression, anxiety, and maladaptive perfectionism in people with bipolar disorder.
There are two kinds of self-compassion, according to research psychologist Kristin Neff, PhD, one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion.
Tender self-compassion is a gentle, nurturing energy that allows us to accept ourselves and our difficult emotions.
Fierce self-compassion is about motivating ourselves to make changes, which can include drawing boundaries and taking steps to meet our needs that haven’t been fulfilled.
Neff often hears people mistakenly associate self-compassion with self-pity. Or they feel that they’re undeserving. But self-compassion is about recognizing that all humans—not just other people—are imperfect and deserve care and kindness.
Prior to being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder just three years ago, 55-year-old Amy B. spent decades feeling ashamed of her mood swings and viewed herself as “unlovable.”
Guilt and self-condemnation bubbled up when she felt her bipolar symptoms prevented her from balancing work commitments and giving enough energy to her family. Or when she decided to cut people out of her life who felt toxic, but wondered whether it was her fault that she couldn’t develop a healthy relationship with them.
Starting a self-compassion practice can feel forced and insincere at first, which is why many psychologists recommend that clients “fake it ’til you make it.”
Just know that the more you practice, the more natural it will feel.
Practicing self-preservation & self-compassion
With practice, Amy has learned to be much more understanding with herself: “I show myself self-compassion by saying, ‘I did the best I could at the time.’… This allows me to turn down negative and self-defeating thoughts. I couldn’t have known then what I know now.”
Being gentle with yourself—setting aside the weight of shame, self-judgment, and other people’s expectations—allows you to put more energy toward other things.
Amy has come to terms with some self-care requirements that help her manage her symptoms. For example, avoiding an oncoming mood episode may mean needing to go to bed earlier than usual rather than making dinner or spending quality time with loved ones.
“It’s about accepting that I have limitations and allowing myself to take care of those limitations,” she says.