Do you speak to yourself the same way you would speak to your best friend? Here’s how to get better at giving yourself a break.
In a perfect world, we’d practise self-compassion every day. But the reality is, a lot of people struggle even to define what it means. That’s according to Steven Hickman, a clinical psychologist and chief operating officer of the Global Compassion Coalition.
Compassion is defined as the “awareness of suffering, coupled with a desire to relieve that suffering,” Hickman explains. So self-compassion is the act of noticing when you’re struggling, recognising that’s actually part of being human, and being kind to yourself rather than beating yourself up, he says.
Kristen Neff, PhD, an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s department of educational psychology, developed the definition of self-compassion most researchers use. (It’s measured via a 12-item scale.) It states that self-compassion consists of three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. In other words, showing yourself self-compassion means offering yourself all three of these things.
Self-kindness is exactly what it sounds like: being kind to yourself. Common humanity means recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. And mindfulness refers to entering a non-judgmental state of mind that’s receptive to all kinds of feelings and experiences.
Another way to think about it Hickman says: “Self-compassion is treating yourself the way you treat a good friend.”
Why is it so important for health and wellbeing? Self-compassion builds resilience, which helps us withstand the challenges of life, Hickman says. “It allows us to weather difficulty without sending us into a spiral of self-criticism or self-blame or shame,” he says.
Indeed, research suggests that practising self-compassion can help reduce depression and anxiety. For example, one study reports that self-compassion has been associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms, particularly because it helps curb issues such as self-judgement and isolation.
Another study found that self-compassion has the potential to buffer self-coldness, which is a contributing factor to depression.
According to a study review, people who practise more self-compassion are more likely to have better relationships that are characterised by warmth and emotional validation, plus greater emotional awareness, clarity, and acceptance.
Self-compassion is also linked with an increased ability to respond to stress in a flexible and self-soothing way, the review notes.
And another takeaway: Self-compassionate people are less likely to engage in harmful avoidance, rumination, and worry, which could help protect them from emotional disorders.
In another study, researchers found that on days when college-age women reported higher levels of appearance-related self-compassion, they also experienced lower levels of disordered eating. And participants who responded to a perceived body flaw – like disliking their stomach or thighs – in a self-compassionate way had significantly lower levels of body shame.
Despite all of these benefits, practising self-compassion can be difficult, Hickman and other experts say.
HOW TO GET BETTER AT PRACTISING SELF-COMPASSION
It’s a common misconception that practising self-compassion is narcissistic or a sign of weakness. “Actually, it’s quite the opposite,” Hickman says.
Self-compassion requires a lot of inner strength, says Deanna Denman, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
To do so requires that we turn toward, rather than away from, challenging emotions and sensations, she explains.
“Turning toward difficult experiences and responding with self-compassion builds our ability to cope, and makes us stronger and more resilient.”
So how can you get better at practising self-compassion? Here are seven tips.
1. Check In With Yourself Throughout the Day
Denman suggests asking yourself, “What do I need right now?” It’s “the quintessential self-compassionate question,” she says. Maybe you need to take a half-hour break by yourself to recharge, or you need a nap or a reassuring conversation with a friend.
Part of caring for yourself is listening to and then addressing your needs.
2. Journal About Times You’re Hard on Yourself
Throughout the week, make note of times when you notice harsh self-talk or judgements about yourself, says Rebecca Marcus, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist based in New York City. See if you notice any patterns, she suggests. And then ask yourself:
“How have harsh judgments and negative self-talk helped me? And what am I afraid will happen if I shift them?”
3. Find Small Ways to Practise Self-Kindness in Difficult Moments
“Think: a cup of tea, watching a funny video (build up a ‘laughter library’ for hard days), journaling, short walks, prayer, or meditation,” Denman says. All of these rituals can soothe and nourish you.
4. Take a Course
The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (where Hickman is a teacher) offers many programs, including “self-compassion for educators” and “self-compassion for teens.” These are typically eight weeks long, and you can take them online. Participants learn how to develop and finesse the skills of mindful self-compassion and silence their inner critics. Courses can be a great way to learn what self-compassion is and how you can apply it to your own life with the help of an expert, Hickman says.
5. When You’re Upset, Imagine Comforting Your Younger Self or a Favourite Baby Animal
“People often have difficulty giving themselves compassion,” says Adia Gooden, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Evanston, Illinois, and host of the Unconditionally Worthy podcast. “Imagining offering something or someone else compassion can make it much easier and is still effective.”
Picture a baby deer, for example, with big innocent eyes and a sweet face, or maybe a helpless kitten abandoned by its mother. Imagine the comfort you would provide the animal, and then extend that same compassion to yourself, she says.
6. Try a Guided Meditation
Hickman provides recordings on his website that can help guide your self-compassion practice. There are also more than a dozen available on Neff’s website, including guides for doing a compassionate body scan, noting your emotions, taking a protective break, and working with the emotions in your body.
7. Don’t Get Frustrated if It Doesn’t Happen Right Away
Recognise that becoming self-compassionate will take time. “If you find that you’re self-critical or lacking in self-compassion, it didn’t start yesterday,” Hickman notes. “It’s probably been something of a lifelong practice that you’ve built up for whatever reason.” That means it would be unrealistic to expect yourself to change overnight.