“Self-compassion allows us to be with ourselves as we are in all of our brokenness. Fierce compassion calls on us to be brave, to take action, to do something to mitigate suffering.”
How often do you catch yourself saying something like:
'Why did I say that?'
'Why didn't I do that?'
'What is wrong with me?'
'If only I had have thought of .......'
'They must think I'm so stupid'
'I'm never going to be good at this job'
'I look awful in these pants'
Self-compassion is not something that comes easily or naturally to many of us. In fact, we are often masters at criticizing ourselves. Self-criticism can be both a personality trait and a habit and some of us will struggle with more than others. But, it is something we will all experience at some point. It's common for self-criticism to originate in our early relationships. People who have had controlling parents or experienced abusive relationships, for example, are often highly self-critical. Self-criticism can also be a form of self-protective behaviour in some circumstances - if you are your own worst enemy, no one can get to you - or so we tell ourselves!
The problem is that self-criticism can result in us experiencing fewer daily positive emotions, higher rates of depression and eating disorders. The antidote to self-criticism is self-compassion.
The Science Behind Self-Compassion
No one knows self-compassion like Kristin Neff. A pioneer in the study of self-compassion, Neff has been conducting research about self-compassion for more than two decades. This is what she has to say: "Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?"
Kristin Neff's extensive research on self-compassion has demonstrated its numerous benefits, including reduced anxiety, and depression, and increased emotional resilience .
The Pillars of Self-Compassion
Neff's definition of self-compassion emphasizes three core components.
1. Self-kindness: This involves recognizing that being imperfect, failing and experiencing difficulties is an inevitable part of life and in the face of these struggles finding a way to be warm and understanding toward ourselves. Self-kindness is treating yourself with the same understanding and kindness that you would offer a friend who is struggling.
2. Common humanity: Recognition and understanding that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience. Remembering that you are not alone and that many others are navigating similar challenges, can reduce our feelings of frustration and isolation.
3. Mindfulness: A willingness to observe our thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity. Self-compassion involves being present and mindful of your emotions and experiences. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. To be mindful is to notice thoughts and feelings without being 'over-identified' with them or to be caught up in negative reactivity.
Practical Skills for Self-Compassion
If you are still with me and are ready to learn how to cultivate more self-compassion, here are some practical exercises that have been helpful for others.
1. Self-Compassion Journal
Try setting a goal of writing every day for a week, or once a week for a month. Create a self-compassion journal where you write down your thoughts and feelings, especially during challenging moments. Include moments of self-criticism and transform them into self-compassionate statements using kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. An example might be, "I felt so frustrated and annoyed after waiting on hold to talk to a customer service rep. and I took it out on them when they came on the line. I feel like such a jerk. Why do I always react like that?"
Responding mindfully includes making space for and noticing the difficult emotions that showed up. You can write about the emotions you experienced in a non-judgmental way. Responding with common humanity might be acknowledging that we all show up in a way we are not proud of from time to time. Responding from a place of kindness means that you stay gentle with yourself as you explore the example .
Try setting an intention to take a few minutes each day to sit quietly, and bring your awareness to your breath. Become curious and aware of your inhale and your exhale. Notice the rise and the fall of your belly and begin to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Try saying to yourself, "I am noticing I am having the thought.....". This practice can help you become more aware of your inner experiences.
3. Supportive Touch
Touch can activate the parasympathetic nervous system to help us calm down and feel more safe. While your brain might say 'This feels awkward and uncomfortable', your body responds to this gesture of self-care just as a baby responds to a cuddle. Physical touch releases oxytocin provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions and calms cardiovascular stress .
You are your own best expert. Explore where on your body a gentle touch feels most soothing. Some possibilities are:
a hand on your cheek
cradling your face in your hands
a hand on your heart
gently stroking your arms, or giving them a squeeze
rubbing your chest in a circular motion
a hand on your belly or a hand on your belly and a hand on your heart
cupping one hand in the other on your lap
4. Self-Compassion Break
Kristin Neff suggests a simple exercise called the 'Self-Compassion Break.' When you're facing difficulties, pause, and say to yourself:
- "This is a moment of suffering."
- "Suffering is a part of life; I'm not alone in this."
- "May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion I need."
5. Emotion Labeling
When you experience intense emotions, pause and label them. Say, "I am feeling [emotion]" without judgment. This simple exercise, inspired by ACT, helps you accept your emotions as natural responses to situations and fosters emotional resilience .
Developing self-compassion is not a passive act. To develop self-compassion we need to intentionally embrace our humanity, acknowledge our imperfections, and practice kindness, curiosity and openness toward our thoughts and emotions. This is a process and a practice, not a destination.
1. Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28-44.
2. Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A Mindful Self-Compassion Program for the General Public: Recommendations for Implementation. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 2(1-2), 101-107.
3. Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 865-878.
4. Hayes, S. C., Pistorello, J., & Levin, M. E. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy as a unified model of behavior change. The Counseling Psychologist, 40(7), 976-1002.
About the Author
Brittany Rickett, Bachelor of Education, MA in Counselling Psychology, CCC, LCT-C
Brittany has her Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology from Yorkville University. She worked as a teacher for 13 years before becoming a school counsellor and opening a private practice for virtual and in-person therapy in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Brittany is passionate about ACT in therapy, and also draws on EFT, IFS, Polyvagal and somatic approaches in her work. Brittany is a certified yoga instructor and Social Emotional Wellness coach offering online workshops and professional development on resilience, mental health, and mind-body connection. She values inclusivity, diversity, anti-oppression, anti-racism, and neurodiversity and is affirmative of all sexual and gender diversities.