Self-compassion isn’t something that comes easily to me. I come from a competitive background where pain is not something to be avoided but instead heralded as ‘weakness leaving the body’. This mindset helped me achieve several goals. But at times, it also led me to push myself too hard and end up injured, burnt out, or both. When I first tried to practice self-compassion, it felt like I was going against all of my natural instincts.
Luckily, they weren’t actual instincts. They were learned thought patterns, which means that I (and you!) can change them. It’s not easy, but the research shows there are a lot of benefits to practicing self-compassion, such as greater happiness, improved relationships, and better health.
What is self-compassion?
At its core, self-compassion is about treating yourself with - you guessed it! - compassion. If you dig a bit deeper, it’s comprised of three main elements:
- Being mindful of what you’re feeling and how you’re treating yourself
- Being kind to yourself even, and especially, if you’ve messed up
- Recognizing that all humans experience setbacks and pain
Be mindful of your feelings, show kindness, and know that everyone has setbacks.
It’s relatively easy to understand it when you break it down like this. The difficult part is remembering to practice self-compassion when your first reaction is to be self-critical, which is the response many of us have learned and practiced for most of our lives.
A lot of us think that the harsher we are with ourselves, the more likely we are to do better in the future.
The truth is that these types of criticisms are not that effective as a motivating tool. Our body often interprets criticisms as threats, causing us to feel stressed. As most of us know, feeling continuously stressed can lead to a whole host of mental and physical issues, including increased anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure.
Studies show that reacting to disappointments with self-compassion, however, is a much better way to make positive changes. Self-compassion can actually activate oxytocin and other endorphins that help reduce stress.
What does this look like in practice?
Let’s say you had big plans to be productive on your day off. You were going to do the laundry, batch cook some meals, go to the post office, go to the gym, and cap it off by vacuuming your whole apartment.
Your day off finally arrives... and you are exhausted. You do the laundry but leave the clean clothes lying in a heap, the only cooking you do is heating frozen foods up in the microwave, there’s no trip to the post office, you make it to the gym but leave early because you’re so tired, and the vacuum sits in your closet seemingly mocking you for not having used it. You go to bed that night feeling disappointed in yourself.
Many of us would respond to that disappointment by scolding ourselves.
“Why couldn’t I just walk to the post office, it isn’t even ten minutes away! It would have been easy, I just didn’t do it because I’m lazy,” you berate yourself. “How hard is it to push a stupid vacuum around? I am so weak,” you think reproachfully.
The result is that you feel bad, stressed, and possibly anxious or desolate. You may even start to spiral into thinking of other ways that you feel you’re inadequate. This kind of rumination will just leave you feeling worse and worse.
A self-compassionate response would be to remind yourself that mistakes and pain are part of being human:
“I’m feeling tired and disappointed in myself right now, which are lousy ways to feel. What can I do for myself to offer myself kindness? I can remind myself that I did still do the laundry and go to the gym, and that’s worth celebrating. I worked hard this week and I can’t expect myself to give 100% effort all the time. Everyone has days where they aren’t as productive as they want to be. This is normal.”
Self-compassion vs. self-pity
One of the main worries people have about practicing self-compassion is that it will give them an excuse to coddle themselves. But saying “poor me” is not a form of self-compassion. Kindly encouraging, supporting, and motivating yourself is not the same as pitying yourself.
Self-compassion emphasises our connection to other humans, which actively drives us away from pitying ourselves. It requires us to look outward and see the bigger picture, making it harder to dwell on one day or one problem.
If you’re going through a hard time and feel as though no one in the history of humanity has ever experienced pain like what you’re feeling, it could make you feel isolated, hopeless, and self-pitying. But recognizing that all humans have experienced anguish and gone on to live meaningful lives can leave you feeling connected, hopeful, and encouraged.
Self-compassion highlights our connection to other people and makes us see the bigger picture.
Self-compassion is not an excuse to be self-indulgent, it’s a way to give yourself a safe place to land when things don’t go as planned. If you know that failure will cause you to be cruel to yourself, you may be too afraid to challenge yourself. But if you trust that you’ll treat yourself with kindness no matter what happens, you’re more likely to try new things.
So don’t put off practicing self-compassion because you feel it may make you weak; chances are it’ll make you stronger, more productive, and happier.
Be your own friend
If you’re having trouble treating yourself with kindness, try to imagine that you’re talking to a loved one in the same situation. How would you speak to them? What would you say? Chances are you wouldn’t tell your friend that they’re weak and worthless for not having completed everything on their to-do list.
There are lots of ways to practice self-compassion. You can memorize a mantra to repeat when you’re in a difficult situation. You can write a letter to yourself as if you were a cherished friend. You can do daily self-kindness meditations.
Personally, I found Kristin Neff’s book on self-compassion really helpful: it offers a lot of research on the benefits of self-compassion, as well as advice on how to practice it yourself.
Unfortunately, simply knowing about self-compassion won’t make it our go-to response when things go wrong, especially if we’ve spent years wiring our brains to respond with self-criticism. But we are capable of breaking bad habits and learning better ones. It’s a process, but I’m going to keep working at choosing kindness, compassion, connection, and better health.