The Gift of Self Compassion
If you have been following our blogs, you may have read our previous articles about the benefits of self-compassion – specifically, how it is associated with greater well-being, health, and life satisfaction. In today’s blog we describe some ways you can practice self-compassion through learning to be kind and supportive to yourself. In the process you will ultimately gain a gentle and wise friend who never leaves your side.
Being kind to yourself sounds so simple, but if you are anything like me, you will find it is harder than it sounds. And when you realize you are not being kind to yourself, you will then beat yourself up for that too! Having specific steps to implement can help adopt a new attitude.
Becoming aware of your SELF-TALK is a good place to start cultivating self-compassion. When you are struggling or make a mistake, listen to your thoughts. Do you talk to yourself like a supportive friend or do you have an inner critic? That critical voice may be so familiar that its conclusions feel like facts. “I AM really weak” … “I’ll NEVER be strong enough to get past this”. Those conclusions are not facts, just your inner critic running on autopilot. Through slowing our thought process down and practicing mindfulness techniques, we can focus our attention on our thoughts and feelings without judgement. Once you become aware of this background chatter in your mind, try to change your self-talk by addressing the inner critic with compassion and empathy. Self-compassion expert Kristen Neff gives a great example:
If you’ve just eaten half a box of Oreo’s, does your inner voice say something like “you’re so disgusting,” “you make me sick” and so on? Make an active effort to soften the self-critical voice, but do so with compassion rather than self-judgment (i.e. don’t say “you’re such a bitch” to your inner critic!). Say something like “I know you’re worried about me and feel unsafe, but you are causing me unnecessary pain. Could you let my inner compassionate self say a few words now?” Reframe the observations made by your inner critic in a friendly, positive way. If you’re having trouble thinking of what words to use, you might want to imagine what a very compassionate friend would say to you in this situation...you may say something like, “Darling, I know you ate that bag of cookies because you’re feeling sad right now and you thought it would cheer you up. But you feel even worse and are not feeling good in your body. I want you to be happy, so why don’t you take a long walk so you feel better?” (1)
Another helpful practice to cultivate self-compassion is JOURNALING. Try taking a few minutes at the end of each day to recall any difficult experiences or reactions you may have had and record the event in your journal using the tools outlined below. Let us use the following example to set the stage. Imagine you became angry at your teenager when he could not find his sports gear, which would ultimately cause you to be late dropping him off at practice and you would then be late to your own appointment. You snapped at him, stomped out the door, and the car ride was tense. When journaling later that night, you could benefit from using these three techniques: mindfulness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness.
1. Using mindfulness, involves implementing a non-judgmental approach as you record the details of what took place and observe your associated feelings (such as shame, anger, regret, or disconnection) with care. For example, “I was angry because I felt disrespected and I overreacted by yelling at him. Afterwards, I felt really guilty about snapping at him.”
2. Next, try to broaden your perspective (a sense of common humanity) through acknowledging that all humans struggle at times and understanding that what took place is part of the human experience. “It’s normal for people to feel angry when they feel disrespected. Teenagers can be a challenge sometimes, as they are still learning effective communication skills. Sometimes people get snippy when they are angry. It’s not ideal, but it does happen.”
3. Finally, write something kind and supportive to yourself, “You are doing the best you can. I see that you care deeply about your relationships and behavior. Maybe next time you could try taking a deep breath before reacting.”
Working through these three steps in your journal regularly will help you to process your thoughts and feelings in a healthy, productive manner, while also fostering self-compassion in your daily life.
An additional practice which fosters self-compassion is SUPPORTIVE TOUCH. Think, for a moment, how good it feels to get a hug from a friend when you are feeling down. That good feeling, in part, is the feeling of your parasympathetic nervous system being activated and flooding your body with the feel-good hormone -- oxytocin. Offering yourself a gentle and supportive touch can produce the same positive effect. The next time you are struggling or stressed, try gently stroking your arm or placing your hand over your heart as you take a few deep breaths and attune yourself to loving-kindness. You might repeat a phrase such as, “It’s okay” or “May you be well.” While it may feel awkward at first, this can become an effective practice to sooth difficult emotions and calm your body. In addition to the calming effect, tending to yourself physically provides a sense of security and grounding.
The goal of self-compassion is not necessarily to ‘feel good’ by escaping difficult circumstances or feelings of pain, but rather to offer ourselves a sense of connection and kindness amid difficulties. We are ultimately working towards alleviating some of the suffering we cause ourselves when we reject, minimize, or belittle our experiences. According to Kristen Neff, a prominent self-compassion researcher:
With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. This allows us to hold ourselves in love and connection, giving ourselves the support and comfort needed to bear the pain, while providing the optimal conditions for growth and transformation. (1)
The next time you find yourself riding the rollercoaster of emotions that accompany challenging circumstances or mistakes, reach out to yourself with loving-kindness to offer the wisdom and care that comes from being your own friend. May you be well!
1. Neff, K. (2020. Tips for practice - Self-Compassion. Retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/tips-for-practice/