When you look at yourself in the bathroom mirror, do you focus in on your favourite feature and give yourself a compliment? Do you think about how grateful you are to be alive, and fortunate to have a bathroom with hot and cold running water? Or do you focus on something you wish were different, and hear a critical inner voice?
If you tend to find fault and criticise yourself, know that you have plenty of company among your fellow humans. In fact, our tendency to focus attention on negative issues instead of positive ones is a shared characteristic we carry from our earliest evolutionary survival needs.This ‘negativity bias,’ as science has labelled it, is our typical default orientation.
Moving toward a more loving, appreciative, and grateful way of being – both towards ourselves and towards others – is something we are all capable of doing. But it does require awareness and repetition.
If we are ready to be kind to ourselves and willing to send that negative voice away on permanent vacation, how do we begin to build our capacity for self-compassion?
Kristin Neff, PhD, one of the world’s leading researchers on self-compassion, identifies three elements of self-compassion;mindfulness, self-kindness, and recognition of our common humanity,that offer a roadmap to strengthening our self-compassion skills.
1. Start With Mindful Awareness
Circle back to the first mention of the bathroom mirror chat with yourself. We asked you to notice whether your positive or negative voice was more dominant. Noticing, paying attention, and being aware of how you are already treating yourself is really the first step. Mindfulness, which simply means paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, allows us to be aware of what our inner dialogue is doing.
It’s most helpful to approach this awareness gently, and without judgement.
In other words, if you want to be gentler on yourself, you can’t get angry with yourself for being angry with yourself.
Begin by simply naming what you are feeling and what your inner voice is saying to you. Use your actual name as you describe what you are doing, seeing, and feeling, “Laura is really upset with herself for looking so tired and for the bags under her eyes since she went to bed super late the last few nights.”
Then, instead of judging and blaming yourself, be curious about what you did and the motivation.
Recognise that our actions generally arise from a place of wanting to feel safe and wanting to do the right thing. Name that positive motive, “I am upset with myself and the way I look because I want to get all my assignments complete on time.”
Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with what you’ve got. And keep your attention on the positive aspects of the situation.
2. Practice Kindness
For many people, once they tune in carefully to that inner voice, it can be jolting to notice how they regularly speak to themselves.
Recognising that you speak to yourself in ways that you would never speak to a friend is the next step to deepening your self-compassion by ramping up your self-kindness.
One of the challenges of self-compassion is that compassion itself is a relational skill, i.e. it’s easier to offer compassion to someone else. It’s hard to acknowledge our primary relationship with ourselves, and to view it through the lens of a loving relationship.
Know that we all are worthy of love, we are all enough. With a little practice, showing loving kindness to yourself might first seem awkward, but will begin to come more easily. Soon the positive feeling you receive from self-kindness will provide its own sense of wellbeing and become self-reinforcing.
IDEA: When you are facing a challenge or hardship, write a note to a friend as if they were facing the same problem. Write down what is in your heart that you think would help comfort your friend. Then, take the note and replace your friend’s name in the salutation with your own.
3. Recognise You Aren’t Alone
A very natural response to our own suffering is to screen it off from friends and family so that they don’t see our troubles. We might feel ashamed, embarrassed, or just not perfect enough. We want others to see our wonderful, happy life.
It is very important to remember that no one is immune – we all meet suffering at some point, and some of us unfortunately suffer more than others.
Everyone faces challenges and makes mistakes. Not one of us leads a picture perfect life!
In this age of social media it is particularly difficult to grasp that we all have troubles. The social feeds of other people are the ‘highlight reels’ of their lives, but our daily life is going to become very challenging if we continue to compare ourselves to others.
When we recognise that suffering is a common human trait, a couple of valuable things happen. Firstly, our suffering gets a little bit less lonely. Secondly, it becomes a little easier to open up to others, and say, “I’m hurting or I need help.” We don’t have to pretend that everything is great when it isn’t. It’s OK to take off the masks and let people know exactly how we are. In fact, being honest about our feelings is the best way to develop more closeness and intimacy, because we all understand these difficult moments happen!
4. Keep Practising
Self-compassion is a skill that gets better and better the more you practise it. Like any new habit development, repetition is key for the brain to establish new neural connections. Like muscles in your physical body, training is important to strengthen and sharpen your skills.It also gets easier.
So start with small steps, and keep on moving forward. Be patient and celebrate every success, large or small. Every time you recognise how you treat yourself makes the next recognition smoother and easier. Each word of self-kindness you offer yourself reinforces how valuable it is to do. And every time you see your own suffering in the context of the suffering of the world builds deeper connections to others, which make healing and wellbeing easier. Taking up an intentional practice of self-compassion becomes a fulfilling, self-reinforcing path towards greater wholeness and happiness.
Just imagine looking at yourself in that mirror and feeling the warmth of love toward yourself as you do for a partner, child, best friend, or pet. Try on some self-compassion skills, and see yourself in a whole new light.
Laura Berland and Evan Harrel founded the Center for Compassionate Leadership to catalyze a global movement and advocate for compassion—for ourselves, each other, and the greater whole, as a necessary and urgent remedy for these challenging times. The Center’sgroundbreaking approach to supporting leaders unites evidence-based principles of modern leadership with the latest neuro-scientific research and the time-honoured wisdom of contemplative practices.