What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is being understanding and kind to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. It is not self-esteem, self-pity or self-indulgence. It's about treating oneself the way that we would generally treat others that we care about, and releasing the expectation that we must be perfect. It seeks to forgive, understand and accept the self as opposed to punishing and judging the self.

It's composed of mindfulness, common humanity and kindness.

Mindfulness allows us to take a balanced approach to our negative emotions. They are neither ignored, denied, suppressed or exaggerated.

Common humanity is the reminder that all humans suffer, and even the people that we admire most are human. It asks us to extend the human ability to make mistakes to ourselves, to be vulnerable and asks us to recognize that we are not alone and that what we are experiencing is part of the human experience.

Kindness is being warm, understanding and gentle with ourselves when we make a mistake - as opposed to being harsh, judgmental and self-critical.

What are the benefits?

Self-compassion is more beneficial than self-esteem. Because self-esteem is based on self-evaluation and judgment (even if it's positive in nature), it's more fallible to influence. Self-esteem can also change based on what we accomplish or fail to accomplish - in that way, it's much more susceptible to falling. Self-compassion doesn't require us to compare ourselves to others or evaluate ourselves - only to practice acceptance, no matter what. Because of that stability, it makes us more resilient, kinder in relationships and allows us to have more accurate self-concepts. Research shows that people who motivate themselves with kindness instead of criticism better persevere through adversity and learn from failure.

What are some exercises or practices that we can engage in to be more self-compassionate?

Below are 25 exercises, activities or prompts that you can engage in to start your self-compassion practice. Pick the activities that resonate the most with you - what matters most is consistent practice. Set aside time every day to engage in the practice. These can be thought exercises or you can journal them. It's important to do them regularly, whether you're feeling absolutely amazing or completely unmotivated. Think of it as exercising your muscles, even if you didn't need to lift anything heavy. When the time eventually came to move something, you'd be ready. Similarly, we wouldn't stop exercising once we became fit - we would either increase or practice or maintain it. The brain is the same way.

1.) Think of a successful experience you’ve had. How did you contribute to it?

2.) Ask your body: Do you need anything to feel more comfortable? Do you need to stretch, walk, relax or breathe? Give yourself permission to enjoy whatever action you take.

3.) Bring to mind someone who loves you or who has loved you. This can be a pet or a person. Notice how this feels in your body. Allow their presence to ebb and flow for three breaths.

4.) Picture a child, animal, or any image that makes you feel warmth and love. Take three breaths sending compassion to that image.

5.) Picture a baby or an animal. Say, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be loved.” Repeat four times.

6.) Bring to mind someone who has enormous wells of compassion. Imagine them sending you love right now. Are they saying anything? What is the expression on their face?

7.) Try forgiving yourself for a small recent misstep. Now wish yourself well.

8.) Consider one of your heroes or role models. What three things do you have in common with them as a human being?
 

9.) Just like a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, can you find a small painful experience and see if you can transform it into strength, purpose or growth, to heal yourself or others?
 

10.) What would you offer a friend at the end of a hard day that you can offer yourself now?
 

11.) If a child told you they were a failure because of some small mistake, how might you respond? Can you try the same words and tone for yourself?

12.) What is an act of self-compassion and self-care that you can take today that is neither self-denial nor self-indulgence?

13.) Maybe no one else will show their appreciation but you still can. Take just a moment and write yourself a note of gratitude for something you did for you.

14.) For the rest of your day, notice the number of self-criticisms and the number of compassionate encouragements you give yourself. Set an intention to shift that ratio toward compassion.

15.) If you’ve made a mistake or fallen short in some way, and the self-blame won’t relent, go to a mirror. Yes, now. Look yourself in the eyes and say “I forgive you.”

16.) Consider one of your heroes or role models. Can you recognize that they suffer and struggle with imperfection too?

17.) Is a part of your emotional experience calling out in pain or discomfort? Can you just be with it without trying to change it for five breaths?

18.) Is a part of your emotional experience calling out in pain or discomfort? Can you just be with it without trying to change it for five breaths?

19.) Pay attention to that self- critical voice within you (and all of us). Try saying, “I know you criticize me because you are suffering. I want to care for you.” Send yourself compassion.
 

20.) In every moment, there are infinite reasons to be upset and infinite reasons to be happy. Make a list of five things you could be happy about right now. Don’t stop if more keep flowing.

21.) Part One: Which imperfections make you feel inadequate?

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. Try writing about an issue you have that tends to make you feel inadequate or bad about yourself (physical appearance, work or relationship issues…) What emotions come up for you when you think about this aspect of yourself? Try to just feel your emotions exactly as they are – no more, no less – and then write about them.

Part Two: Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend.

Now think about an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate. Imagine that this friend can see all your strengths and all your weaknesses, including the aspect of yourself you have just been writing about. Reflect upon what this friend feels towards you, and how you are loved and accepted exactly as you are, with all your very human imperfections. This friend recognizes the limits of human nature, and is kind and forgiving towards you. In his/her great wisdom this friend understands your life history and the millions of things that have happened in your life to create you as you are in this moment. Your particular inadequacy is connected to so many things you didn’t necessarily choose: your genes, your family history, life circumstances – things that were outside of your control.

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.

Part Three: Feel the compassion as it soothes and comforts you

After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back and read it again, really letting the words sink in. Feel the compassion as it pours into you, soothing and comforting you like a cool breeze on a hot day. Love, connection and acceptance are your birthright. To claim them you need only look within yourself.

22.) Think about the ways that you use self-criticism as a motivator. Is there any personal trait that you criticize yourself for having (too overweight, too lazy, too impulsive, etc.) because you think being hard on yourself will help you change? If so, first try to get in touch with the emotional pain that your self-criticism causes, giving yourself compassion for the experience of feeling so judged.

Next, see if you can think of a kinder, more caring way to motivate yourself to make a change if needed. What language would a wise and nurturing friend, parent, teacher, or mentor use to gently point out how your behavior is unproductive, while simultaneously encouraging you to do something different. What is the most supportive message you can think of that’s in line with your underlying wish to be healthy and happy?

Every time you catch yourself being judgmental about your unwanted trait in the future, first notice the pain of your self-judgment and give yourself compassion. Then try to reframe your inner dialogue so that it is more encouraging and supportive. Remember that if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear

23.) If you work in a care-giving profession (and that certainly includes being a family member!), you’ll need to recharge your batteries so you have enough energy available to give to others. 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. For instance, you might listen to relaxing music, take a yoga class, hang out with a friend for an evening, or get a massage.

Of course, sometime our time is limited and we aren’t able to take care of ourselves as much as we’d like. Also, one limitation of self-care strategies is that they’re “off the job,” and can’t be done while you’re actually caregiving. Thus, it’s important to also engage in “on the job” self care. When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed when with the person you’re caring for, you might try giving yourself soothing words of support (for example “I know this is hard right now, and it’s only natural you’re feeling so stressed. I’m here for you.”). Or else you might try using soothing touch or the self-compassion break. This will allow you to keep your heart open, and help you care for and nurture yourself at the same time you’re caring for and nurturing others.

24.) 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.

25.) Try keeping a daily self-compassion journal for one week (or longer if you like.) Journaling is an effective way to express emotions, and has been found to enhance both mental and physical well-being. At some point during the evening when you have a few quiet moments, review the day’s events. In your journal, write down anything that you felt bad about, anything you judged yourself for, or any difficult experience that caused you pain. (For instance, perhaps you got angry at a waitress at lunch because she took forever to bring the check. You made a rude comment and stormed off without leaving a tip. Afterwards, you felt ashamed and embarrassed.) For each event, use mindfulness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness to process the event in a more self-compassionate way.

Mindfulness

This will mainly involve bring awareness to the painful emotions that arose due to your self-judgment or difficult circumstances. Write about how you felt: sad, ashamed, frightened, stressed, and so on. As you write, try to be accepting and non-judgmental of your experience, not belittling it nor making it overly dramatic. (For example, “I was frustrated because she was being so slow. I got angry, over-reacted, and felt foolish afterwards.”)

Common Humanity

Write down the ways in which your experience was connected to the larger human experience. This might include acknowledging that being human means being imperfect, and that all people have these sorts of painful experiences. (“Everyone over-reacts sometimes, it’s only human.”) You might also want to think about the various causes and conditions underlying the painful event. (“My frustration was exacerbated by the fact that I was late for my doctor’s appointment across town and there was a lot of traffic that day. If the circumstances had been different my reaction probably would have been different.”)

Self-Kindness

Write yourself some kind, understanding, words of comfort. Let yourself know that you care about yourself, adopting a gentle, reassuring tone. (It’s okay. You messed up but it wasn’t the end of the world. I understand how frustrated you were and you just lost it. Maybe you can try being extra patient and generous to any wait-staff this week…”)

Practicing the three components of self-compassion with this writing exercise will help organize your thoughts and emotions, while helping to encode them in your memory. If you keep a journal regularly, your self-compassion practice will become even stronger and translate more easily into daily life.

Resources & Adaptations from:

The Self-Compassion Deck: 50 Mindfulness-Based Practices by Mitch Abblett, PhD

Self-Compassion and Guided Meditation by Kristin Neff, PhD

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