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Self-Compassion

Posted October 2, 2017 by Tresa Clemmensen M.SC. CCC

Self-Compassion "Love yourself—accept yourself—forgive yourself—and be good to yourself, because without you the rest of us are without a source of many wonderful things." ~ Leo F. Buscaglia

Treating ourselves with harsh criticism and judgement is how many of us are accustom to behaving. We rarely think about showing ourselves kindness or treating ourselves like we would treat a good friend. If we do show kindness to ourselves, we worry that doing so is selfish. Research has found that self-criticism only sabotages us and produces a variety of negative consequences. According to Kristin Neff, studies have shown that self-criticism can lead to lowered self-esteem, anxiety and depression; whereas self-compassion has been linked to greater well-being, including diminished anxiety and depression, better emotional coping skills and compassion for others.

So what is self-compassion? According to Kristen Neff, self-compassion consists of the following three components:

Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment
Rather than ignoring our pain or bombarding ourselves with self-criticism, self-compassion involves being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.

Common humanity vs. Isolation
Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to "me" alone. As humans, we all suffer; the definition of being "human" means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect.

Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
Self-compassion includes taking a balanced approach to our emotions so that our emotions are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This involves relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also includes the willingness to observe our thoughts and emotions with openness, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is described by Neff as a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

Neff says that having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. We must learn to practice having this same compassion we would for others and direct it to our own selves. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience.

If you feel that you lack self-compassion, you can start learning to be more self-compassionate. Kristen Neff offers a number of great resources to help you start on this process. On her website www.selfcompassion.org she has guided meditations, writing exercises as well as an assessment to test your level of self-compassion. Below are a couple of our favorite ways to practice self-compassion.

Taking care You
Give yourself permission to meet your own needs, recognizing that this will not only enhance your quality of life, it will also enhance your ability to be there for those that rely on you. Here are some ideas: Get a massage, a pedicure, or other form of pampering. Take a nap in the middle of the day. Go to a comedy club. Listen to relaxing music while lying on the sofa with your eyes closed. Practice loving-kindness meditation or do yoga for a half-hour. Hang out with a friend for an evening. Go dancing. Do the self-compassionate body scan (a guided meditation available at: www.self-compassion.org)

Exploring self-compassion through writing
Everybody has something about themselves that they don’t like; something that causes them to feel shame, to feel insecure, or not “good enough.” It is the human condition to be imperfect, and feelings of failure and inadequacy are part of the experience of living a human life. Think about an issue you have that tends to make you feel inadequate or bad about yourself. How does this aspect of yourself make you feel inside - scared, sad, depressed, insecure, angry? What emotions come up for you when you think about this aspect of yourself?

Now think about an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate. Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend – focusing on the perceived inadequacy you tend to judge yourself for. What would this friend say to you about your “flaw” from the perspective of unlimited compassion? How would this friend convey the deep compassion he/she feels for you, especially for the pain you feel when you judge yourself so harshly?

What would this friend write in order to remind you that you are only human, that all people have both strengths and weaknesses? And if you think this friend would suggest possible changes you should make, how would these suggestions embody feelings of unconditional understanding and compassion? As you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of his/her acceptance, kindness, caring, and desire for your health and happiness.

Self-Compassion Break
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind, and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body. Now, say to yourself:

1. This is a moment of suffering
That’s mindfulness. Other options include:

  • This hurts.
  • Ouch.
  • This is stress.

2. Suffering is a part of life
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, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. Or adopt the soothing touch you discovered felt right for you.
Say to yourself:

3. May I be kind to myself
You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as:

  • 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 patient.

This practice can be used any time of day or night, and will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion when you need it most.