One of the most common issues that comes up in therapy with young adults is the pressure to conform to the standards set by society. It leads to constantly comparing yourself to others which erodes your self-esteem and creates a negative self-image. It also cultivates a terrible cycle of consistent self-criticism. When I talk to young adults about why they see themselves in such a negative light, it becomes clear that they haven’t learned how to switch from self-criticism to self-compassion.
Truthfully, the path to a healthier self-image really lies in cultivating self-compassion which can help anyone foster a kinder, more nurturing relationship with themselves. Self-compassion isn’t something taught in school and it doesn’t come naturally to us, so how do we do it?
The Power Behind Self-Compassion
To understand the power behind self-compassion, you need to learn what it is. Self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kindness, understanding, and support that we would offer to a friend who is struggling or in pain. Self-compassion isn’t self-indulgent and it’s not letting yourself off the hook for something you did wrong. It’s power lies in being kind and compassionate with yourself when you’re struggling. It’s also the key ingredient for building a positive self-image.
Kick Negative Self-Talk to the Curb
Negative self-talk is a common habit that can reinforce self-criticism. Think about it: when was the last time you stood in front of the mirror and thought “I look good!” There’s a better chance that you stood in front of the mirror and thought “This looks awful on me – I look like a hobbit!” Any time you think “I’m so dumb, I can’t believe I did that!” or “I don’t belong here because I’m not where I should be in life like all of these other people”, catch yourself in the negative self-talk thought.
When you start becoming more aware of yourself having those thoughts, you can stop the thought in its tracks! Start to challenge these thoughts by asking yourself if they are based on facts, and if they serve any positive purpose. Replace negative self-talk with self-compassionate and realistic affirmations.
Start Being Kinder to Yourself
If your friend was having a tough day, you wouldn’t tell them how awful their hair looks – right? So why would you do it to yourself? Take out the kid gloves and start treating yourself with kindness. Be gentle with yourself just as you would a friend. When you make a mistake or face a challenge, avoid harsh self-criticism. Instead, offer yourself words of comfort and encouragement. Remind yourself that making mistakes is part of being human.
You’re Not Perfect - Embrace Your Imperfections
As a society, we’re always striving for perfection! We want to have perfectly coifed hair, the perfect space for having friends over, the job that’s perfect for us. But, guess what? Perfectionism often fuels self-criticism. There’s not a single person on earth that’s perfect. Read that again: no one is perfect. We’re human and we make mistakes. Those mistakes are a natural part of our growth because we learn from them. So, embrace your imperfections as unique qualities that make you who you are.
You’re Going to have Setbacks
Once upon a time, I knew someone who said she wasn’t allowed to fail in life – her parents wouldn’t allow it. Stunned, I asked her “then how do you grow as a person if you can’t make mistakes to learn from?” Here’s the thing: you’re going to fail at some point and setbacks are part of life. It’s time to start viewing them as opportunities for growth rather than reasons for self-criticism. Start by acknowledging that you messed up – seriously, own it. Then begin analyzing what went wrong so you can ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. Self-compassion allows you to acknowledge mistakes while still valuing yourself.
Start Hanging Out with More Positive People
There’s an old saying that misery loves company and there’s some truth to it. No one is telling you to find people who are happy all the time because that’s not reality but when you surround yourself with more supportive people, they tend to influence how you treat yourself and others. They’ll also lift you up when you’re feeling low. Another avenue to explore is how exposed you are to media that breeds negativity and social media that fosters comparison or self-criticism. You can limit your exposure to both of those things and seek out communities that promote self-acceptance and self-compassion.
Call a Therapist
Self-criticism and a negative self-image can severely impact your mental health and well-being. If that’s happening, consider seeking the guidance of a mental health professional. Therapy can help you with personalized strategies and support to address these issues effectively. You don’t need to go through this process alone and a therapist can help you prioritize what to do first.
At the end of the day, self-compassion is a learned skill that takes time to develop. It can significantly improve your self-image as a young adult as long as you stick with it. Understanding the concept of self-compassion, challenging negative self-talk, developing self-kindness, embracing imperfection, learning from setbacks, surrounding yourself with positivity, and seeking professional help are part of the journey. Building self-compassion is an ongoing process and it’s okay to have setbacks along the way. Be patient and gentle with yourself as you embark on this journey toward a more positive self-image and a healthier relationship with yourself.