Self-Compassion: What It Is, How It Can Help
By Samantha Price, MHDL, NCC, LPC
How often do you catch yourself, saying unkind things to yourself, such as “Oh, how could I be such a jerk?” or “If I weren’t so careless all the time, I wouldn’t have made that mistake!” or “You idiot!” (or maybe much worse). Would you say these things to a good friend? I’ll bet that you would never consider talking to a good friend that way. Yet it seems that harsh self-judgment has become normal for many of us and we may even believe that it is the best way to motivate ourselves to do better. However, there is a better way to motivate yourself to do better, to deal with difficult situations, and to feel better in general.
There is a growing awareness, backed up by hard evidence that such self-critical treatment is not helpful and can be very harmful to our ability to feel good about ourselves and to make positive changes in our lives. In fact, such harsh self-criticism tends to make us feel depressed, anxious, insecure, and afraid to take on new challenges. Clearly, this is not the way to motivate ourselves (or others) to do better.
The growing movements of self-compassion and mindfulness are linked by the growing awareness and evidence from a huge body of research that indicate that treating ourselves (and others) with kindness not only feels better but also allows us to make healthy changes and face new challenges with more success.
Self-compassion not only helps heal negative states but also increases positive ones. Specifically, research on self-compassion shows that self-compassion enhances emotional resiliency, boosts happiness, gives us more ability to manage traumatic emotions, reduces anxiety and depression, leads to less perfectionism and less shame, reduces stress, and can even maintain healthy lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise.
If compassion is the feeling of caring for and wanting to help others who are suffering, then self-compassion is applying the same feeling toward ourselves. If others are worthy of this awareness, then we are also.
So What Is Self-Compassion?
According to Kristen Neff (one of the principal researchers of this new movement), self-compassion consists of three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Looking at these three elements separately allows us to take a look at self-compassion and gives us ways to develop more self-compassion in our lives.
If we recognize compassion as treating others kindly, then self-compassion is turning that same caring heart and attitude toward ourselves—in essence treating ourselves as we would a good friend. If a good friend is having a difficult day, we would listen to them, offer some care, and be there for them. So treating ourselves with self-kindness first means that we have to notice that we are having a difficult time (when that is true) and then it means that we treat ourselves with care and understanding. That might mean just acknowledging our feelings and soothing ourselves. It may also mean encouraging ourselves to go on, try something again, or whatever we might need in that particular situation. We act as our own best, encouraging friend.
Another element of self-compassion is common humanity. Common humanity recognizes that all people suffer, that suffering is a part of life for everyone at some time, and that we are not better than or less than anyone for feeling these things. It allows us to see ourselves and others as part of a larger whole and, therefore, to avoid the isolation that we might feel if we see ourselves (or others) as “less than” or not as good as others. When we recognize that we are all part of the shared human experience, then we can see that we are all in this together. Our experiences, difficulties, pain may be different in specifics but we all experience difficulties, imperfections, failures, successes, etc. This awareness allows us to be more compassionate toward ourselves and others.
The third element, mindfulness, is being aware of ourselves in the present moment without judgment.
Mindfulness is “knowing what you are experiencing while you’re experiencing it.” — Guy Armstrong (meditation teacher)
Mindfulness is about being with painful emotions (as well as positive ones) and, therefore, noticing rather than avoiding them. In that way, we can choose to use self-compassion to help ourselves deal with them. It doesn’t mean that we exaggerate them or stay in them. Mindfulness means letting things be as they are—if we are suffering, we notice our suffering, offer care to ourselves, and sometimes take some steps to help ourselves move forward.
Without mindfulness, we often fail to notice that we are feeling discouraged, anxious, tired, hungry, tense, etc, and we may fail to act in a way that might be helpful. Being mindful is an attitude that can be practiced in formal ways, such as through mindfulness meditation practices, or it can be practiced in the simple act of noticing the breath go in and out of your body. This simple practice, done for as little as a minute or two, can increase our awareness of what is happening in the present moment. You can “remember to notice.”
So the elements of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness can be used to understand what is meant by self-compassion as an attitude and as a way of being. With practice, self-compassion can take the place of self-critical attitudes. As with other challenges, be compassionate with yourself as you practice the exercises below. In addition, there are a growing number of self-compassion classes taught in the United States and in Europe (see Resources).
I. CHANGING YOUR SELF TALK
One way to practice self-compassion is to use compassionate ways of talking to yourself when you find that you have made a mistake or fallen short of your expectations. Listening to your self-talk and changing it from judgmental to self-compassionate talk can be difficult at first but becomes easier with time. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Exercise your sense of humor—it is magic.
II. SELF-COMPASSION BREAK
(from Mindful Self-Compassion Course, used with permission from Christopher Germer and Kristen Neff)
When you notice that you’re feeling stress or emotional discomfort, see if you can find the discomfort in your body. Where do you feel it the most? Make contact with the sensations as they arise in your body.
Now, say to yourself, slowly:
1. This is a moment of suffering.
Other options include:
This is tough.
2. Suffering is a part of living.
That’s “common humanity.”
Other options include:
Other people feel this way.
I’m not alone.
We all struggle in our lives.
Now, put your hands over your heart, or wherever it
feels soothing, feeling the warmth and gentle touch
of your hands. Say to yourself:
3. May I be kind to myself.
See if you can find words for what you need in times like this.
Other options may be:
May I accept myself as I am.
May I give myself the compassion that I need.
May I learn to accept myself as I am.
May I forgive myself.
May I be strong.
May I be safe.
4. May I give myself the compassion I need.
If you’re having trouble finding the right language, sometimes it helps to imagine what you might say to a dear friend struggling with that same difficulty.
Can you say something similar to yourself, letting the words roll gently through your mind?
III. SELF-COMPASSION IN DAILY LIFE
(used with permission from Germer and Neff)
To be compassionate to yourself means to
• Know when you’re under stress or suffering (mindfulness).
• Respond with care and kindness (selfcompassion). The simplest approach is to discover how you already care for yourself, and then remind yourself to do those things when your life becomes difficult.
Physically – Soften the body.
How do you care for yourself physically (for example, exercise, massage, warm bath, cup of tea)? Can you think of new ways to release the tension and stress that builds up in your body?
Mentally – Reduce agitation.
How do you care for your mind, especially when you’re under stress (for example, meditation, watch a funny movie, read an inspiring book)? Is there a new strategy you’d like to try to let your thoughts come and go more easily?
Emotionally – Soothe and comfort yourself.
How do you care for yourself emotionally (pet the dog, journal, cook)? Is there something new you’d like to try?
Relationally – Connect with others.
How or when do you relate to others that brings you genuine happiness (for example, meet with friends, send a birthday card, play a game)? Is there any way that you’d like to enrich these connections?
Spiritually – Commit to your values.
What do you do to care for yourself spiritually (pray, walk in the woods, help others)? If you’ve been neglecting your spiritual side, is there anything you’d like to remember to do?
Add some of your own spiritual and healthy living practices, including religious practices, meditation, gardening, hanging out with pets and children, or anything that enhances your life.
It helps to remember that our inner critic is often formed in childhood when we receive critical messages from parents, teachers, or other influences, rather than sufficient nurturing, positive feedback that allows us to grow, learn, and develop from a nurturing compassion place. Therefore, it helps to have patience with ourselves as healing these inner messages often takes time and effort. Exercising your own creativity in addressing self-criticism and transforming it into self-compassion is a practice well worth your time and energy. You can change your harsh critic into a warm, helpful supporting ally and increase your resiliency, happiness, joy and feeling of peace. Become more self-compassionate and you will always have a friend at your side.
Germer CK (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. New York: Guilford Press.
Gilbert P (2009). The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Press.
Neff KD (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: William Morrow.
www.mindfulselfcompassion.org (classes in mindful self-compassion in the U.S.)
Samantha Price, MHDL, NCC, LPC, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is committed to helping her clients and herself learn to be more self-compassionate.