When someone you care about comes to you with a hardship or is suffering in some way, what do you do? Most likely, you comfort that person with words of kindness. You say things like, “You did the best you could.” “You’re a great person.” “You can get through this. “ But when YOU suffer, what do you say to yourself? Could it be something like, “You didn’t even try.” “You are such a loser,” or “You are never going to get through this.” Wow, what a difference those words can make. It’s not natural to talk to ourselves like we would to a good friend, but that’s what self-compassion is all about.
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher, self-compassion is a skill-set and a practice, rather than an innate human quality. This is good news because that means we can ALL learn to be more self-compassionate. At its core, self-compassion is about treating yourself as you would a dear friend who is suffering or struggling. We would never yell at our friend or put them down for feeling sad, hurt or dejected. Nor would we call them stupid for making a mistake. Yet this is exactly what we do to ourselves on a regular basis. Dr. Neff says “insecurity, anxiety, and depression are incredibly common in our society, and much of this is due to self-judgment, to beating ourselves up.”
Core components of self-compassion
So how do we stop this internal war we have raged upon ourselves? Self-compassion is part of the answer. It’s the way to let go of self-judgment and accept ourselves with an open heart. Dr. Neff says self-compassion consists of three core components: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
Mindfulness for the purposes of cultivating self-compassion entails acknowledging that you are suffering, and building awareness around your emotions without judgment, resistance, avoidance or rumination/exaggerating the situation. It involves allowing yourself to feel what you’re feeling without over identifying with it. This means labeling your feelings, but not labeling yourself. It involves practicing non-resistance, which is accepting what’s happening without being lost in judgments of good or bad.
She says resistance refers to the struggle that occurs when we believe our experience should be different than it is. We decide to judge our feelings and question whether we should be feeling them at all! Unfortunately resisting unpleasant experiences doesn’t make them go away; in fact, it often makes them worse. Therefore, it’s important that we accept things as they are.
Common humanity is a term that refers to our shared human experience. When cultivating self-compassion, common humanity means realizing that everyone suffers, fails and makes mistakes. It involves recognizing the interconnectedness of our lives. According to Dr. Neff, this is what distinguishes self-compassion from self-acceptance and self-love, as they both leave out an important part - other people. It’s important to recognize that compassion is relational, and by definition literally means to suffer with. Therefore, understanding that we are all human, and we are all interconnected, helps us to recognize that we are not alone in our pain.
Self-compassion is not about feeling sorry for ourselves or wallowing in our suffering. She differentiates between self-pity and self-compassion in this way; she explains that self-pity says “poor me” where self-compassion recognizes that everyone suffers, and says “The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain you feel in difficult times.” Common humanity recognizes that the triggers, the circumstances, and the degree of pain may be different for each person, but the process is the same. In general, we tend to have what Dr. Neff calls “emotional tunnel vision” when we are suffering, and we feel as though we are all alone in our pain, as though no one has ever experienced pain like ours before. But understanding our common humanity helps us to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Self-kindness as it pertains to self-compassion means treating yourself as you would a dear friend or loved-one who is in need. It involves actively comforting ourselves when we are suffering. Self-kindness involves more than merely stopping self judgment. Being kind to ourselves means allowing ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, and stopping to acknowledge that what we are experiencing is difficult. Dr. Neff says we should say to ourselves, “This is really difficult. What do you need right now to feel cared for and comforted?” Therefore, with self-kindness, we can actually soothe and calm our troubled minds and make a peace offering of sympathy from ourselves to ourselves so that true healing can occur.
In your journal, list areas of your life where you could use some self-compassion.
Benefits of self-compassion
Research has shown that practicing these three elements of self-compassion enables us to uncover inner strength and build resilience for difficult times that will inevitably happen in life. Dr. Neff says self-compassion is not about building self-esteem nor is it about feeling confident, as self-esteem is contingent on success and therefore deserts us when we fail. Rather, self-compassion offers a sense of self-worth that doesn’t require us to be perfect or better than others. In order to practice self-compassion, we need to let go of perfectionism and allow ourselves to be human which leads to many benefits including increased happiness, greater life satisfaction, better relationships, improved physical health, decreased anxiety and depression, and becoming more resilient to stressful life events. When we are constantly beating ourselves up, we not only harm our relationship with ourselves, but these feelings trickle down and impact our relationships with others.
List in your journal some benefits that you are hoping to achieve by being more compassionate to yourself.
Why do we lack self-compassion?
With all of these benefits, why do we lack self-compassion? Could it be that we see it as self-indulgent or that we don’t think we are worthy of self-compassion? Is it that we don’t love ourselves enough? If so, why not? Does it stem from our childhood? Dr. Neff says it could be due to our negative core beliefs about ourselves that often originate in childhood and/or come from our culture. Research shows that people who grew up with highly critical parents tend to have more core negative beliefs. These are specific, repetitive thoughts and lingering self-doubts that go through our minds when life becomes difficult. In our most vulnerable moments, these beliefs seem clear and appear to be true.
Common negative core beliefs include things like “I am not good enough”, “I am stupid”, “I am worthless”, “I am a failure” and “I am unlovable.” The best way to address these beliefs is to build awareness around them and challenge them. You can even share them with someone you trust. The truth is that we all have negative core beliefs, but we keep them hidden inside because they make us feel ashamed. By revealing our negative core beliefs to others, they begin to lose their power over us. We can see that we are not alone in our struggles, and that there are many, many other people who are struggling with the same issues.
Do any of these common negative core beliefs resonate with you? Create a list of your personal negative core beliefs in your journal, you can use those listed above, and add to them with any others that pertain to you.
As with most psychological techniques, simply understanding the concept(s) does not lead to transformation. You must apply the technique to your everyday life and learn from your own personal experience. There are many ways to practice self-compassion. Some of these ways include comforting, soothing, validating, protecting, providing and motivating.
Comforting means providing support for your emotional needs; such as offering yourself kind words of affirmation.
Soothing is providing physical touch to help yourself in order to feel physically calmer. Validating involves understanding clearly what you are going through and feeling supported by yourself.
Protecting means saying no to others who are hurting you.
Providing involves giving yourself what you really need.
Motivating is like being a coach and a cheerleader to yourself; meaning you are being kind and supportive rather than using harsh criticism. Saying things like “I believe in you!” and “You can do this!”
The bottom line is that we are all imperfect human beings living an imperfect life. We must allow ourselves to be fully human and acknowledge that we are doing the best we can.
List in your journal your preferred way to practice self-compassion (comforting, soothing, validating, protecting, providing or motivating.)
Think of an aspect of yourself that makes you feel "not good enough." It could be something related to your personality, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life. You may want to use one of the negative core beliefs you wrote in your journal. Apply the three components of self-compassion (mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.)
Mindfulness: Allow yourself to feel the uncomfortableness of the emotional suffering created by these thoughts.
Common humanity: Remind yourself that everyone has things about themselves that they don't like, and that no one is without flaws.
Self-kindness: Imagine what someone who loves you and accepts you unconditionally for who you are would say to you about this part of yourself.
Write a letter to yourself expressing compassion for yourself using the three components of self-compassion. You may find it helpful to write the letter from the perspective of a dear friend. Imagine that someone you love has expressed these feelings to you and you are speaking to them. In other words, be your own dear friend!