When you're having a difficult time, rather than berating yourself, try self-compassion. As a therapist, I've heard so many of my patients say they don't deserve the same level of compassion that they give their friends. "Of course I would be supportive of my friend as she struggles again and again to get her drinking under control," they tell me. "But I'm just a failure when it comes to eating healthy. I should get it right." I remind my clients that we all make mistakes, and that doesn't make us horrible people. No one, including you, is infallible, and that’s okay. Research shows that people who practice self-compassion experience a host of benefits including lower levels of depression and anxiety and they are more optimistic.
Kristin Neff, professor of psychology and a leading researcher on the practice and benefits of self-compassion, describes self-compassion as having three components: self-kindness, recognition of our humanity, and mindfulness. Neff says practicing self-kindness means treating ourselves in a nonjudgmental and understanding way, like how we treat our friends. Recognizing our common humanity means seeing our flaws and imperfections as something that unites us to others, rather than setting oneself apart as a dysfunctional person. Mindfulness helps to develop self-compassion by acknowledging both our flaws and our positive qualities without ignoring our faults or without blowing them out of proportion.
Here are five steps to live out self-kindness, recognize your humanity, and be mindful of this in your day-to-day life.
01. Treat Yourself as You Would Treat Your Friend
Too often we hold ourselves to impossible standards and berate ourselves for our perceived failures. Ironically, the same faults we loathe about ourselves we see in our friends, but we are much more forgiving of their faults. For example, if a friend confides in you that she has been swapping her resolution to go to the gym after work for happy hour with friends, your natural reaction would probably be to provide encouragement and maybe even offer to go for a walk together once a week to help work some exercise in. It is highly doubtful that you would tell your friend that she is fat, ugly, lazy, and will never amount to anything because of her slip-ups. But we often don’t hesitate to say that to ourselves when we don’t meet a goal.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to acknowledge our flaws but, at the same time, not let them be the defining feature of who we are. It may even help you reach those goals—research has demonstrated that practicing self-compassion can help motivate people to eat healthier, quit smoking, work towards fitness goals, and address medical conditions that they were previously ignoring.
02. Write a Letter to Yourself
Neff suggests that an easy and effective way to cultivate self-compassion is to write a letter to yourself as if you were writing to a friend. Words of encouragement during hard times can go a long way. Write about your flaws and your positive qualities in a neutral way and not a negative or berating way. An alternative strategy suggested by The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education is to write a letter to yourself as if you were your friend writing about you. What would your friends say about you? You can even take a poll of your closest friends for some ideas. This isn't an easy exercise, but it does help you practice being kinder to yourself. See how you feel after writing and return to your letter whenever you need a self-compassion boost.
03. Have a Go-To Phrase to Remind Yourself to be Compassionate
Have a phrase at the ready to remind yourself to be self-compassionate. When you find yourself thinking critical and self-defeating thoughts, repeat the phrase to give yourself a break from the hamster wheel of negativity and self-doubt. Practicing self-compassion is far from giving yourself a free pass or excuse for your mistakes. Instead, it means to not judge yourself too harshly and at the same time to not feel defensive, The Harvard Business Review reports that practicing self-compassion leads to higher levels of well-being, optimism, and happiness.
04. Live Out Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness is another recommended way to foster self-compassion. Mindfulness activities such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation can help you practice being nonjudgmental which is a key component of self-compassion. I’m a big fan of the Calm app (which you can use on your desktop and on your smartphone). In my own therapy practice, I recommend it to my patients who are trying to practice mindfulness and I use it myself when I need a break during a busy day.
05. Take a Self-Compassion Assessment
You might be feeling slightly overwhelmed by the thought of making a radical shift towards self-compassion. Start by taking this self-compassion assessment developed by Neff and her research team. Taking the assessment might help you get a better idea of where you need to focus your practice of self-compassion.
Adding a dose of self-compassion to your life doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult. Start slowly by incorporating just one of these easy strategies into your life and then gradually add another when you’re ready. You deserve to reap the benefits of self-compassion. Treat yourself with kindness!
Photo Credit: Horn Photography