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The Golden Rule of self-compassion

We are all familiar with the Golden Rule. It simply says, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It makes sense and it is so easy to understand that we teach it to children.

But I propose there is another Golden Rule, one that we do not recognize and one that is harder for us to embrace. I propose a Golden Rule of self-compassion. This rule would go something like this, do unto yourself as you would have yourself to do unto others.

I propose we adopt a Golden Rule of self-compassion.

Why do we need a rule for self-compassion?

Unfortunately, we can be much harder on ourselves than we are on others. Imagine a friend in need, perhaps someone who has lost a job, has a troubled relationship, or has encountered misfortune. How would we react? It is likely that we would offer them sympathy and understanding. We would instinctively reach out and connect with them. Our conversation with them would be laced with acknowledgement of their pain and our faith that they will overcome their problem and move on to a brighter future. We would likely encourage them to look ahead despite their pain.

Yet, our self-talk – the conversation we have in our mind with ourselves – is often not so positive. Imagine you encountered a similar loss or misfortune. How might you treat yourself? How would you react? Many times, when we are hurt, we instinctively withdraw, disengage, shutdown, or become defensive. We often want to pull up the drawbridge and disconnect from the world. Sometimes we are reluctant to openly acknowledge our pain. We may discount or trivialize our pain to others, even though it is burning inside of us. We may question ourselves. Sometimes we allow our frustration to become anger or rage. Instead of moving past the pain to a brighter future, we shift our focus to the past and engage in dark, emotional combat with it.

It is an old adage that it is easier to solve someone else’s problem rather than your own. The problems of others are distant enough that we can see the bigger picture. Our thoughts are clearer. The solutions are more evident. When the problem is our own, we are overshadowed, even overwhelmed, by what has happened. We cannot think so clearly because our emotions are trying to take control and clearer thinking is pushed into the background during the battle.

Sometimes our self-talk is not so helpful.

We all have a self-image and a script playing in the back of our mind that tells us who we are. Sometimes this script is positive, sometimes it is negative. But it is there, even though we may not always be aware of it. Part of changing how we think and relate to what is happening around us involves changing how we talk to ourselves.

What if we changed our script? What if we shifted our perspective to one of self-compassion? We can be very unforgiving and rude to ourselves at times. Instead of self-blame, despair over our failures, and self-loathing, we can treat ourselves as we would expect ourselves to treat others. This does not mean that we should gloss over our problems and adopt a falsely positive outlook. It does not mean that we try to convince ourselves that things are not so bad. It does not mean that we convince ourselves of anything. It simply means that we accept our pain and our human condition fully, openly, and with the compassion and connectedness we would give to a friend.

The Golden Rule of self-compassion is not passive. It is active. We can fight the urge to let darkness descend. We can allow ourselves to be present in our own lives, understand and care for ourselves, and have the strength to feel our pain and move on. We can simply be there for ourselves.

For more insights see my books and blog at

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit is Matt Collamer on Unsplash)

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