I see it so often on my couch. You folks are TOUGH on yourselves. Sure, sometimes we are disappointed in the world and wish things looked different. But more often than not, the things I see people get stuck on are when they can’t forgive themselves. They can’t give themselves the benefit of the doubt. They doubt they are worthy of being given a break. And then I say, “Let’s talk about self-compassion…. And the eyes glaze over. “No Dr. M, please. Not that.” Yes, that.
Self-compassion, put simply, is the same compassion and understanding you may feel for others, turned inward and given to oneself. One theme I see over and over is that we use our self-hatred, our anger towards ourselves, as fuel. Fuel to do better, work harder, do more. And sure, we need that gut check if something didn’t feel good or wasn’t consistent with our self-image. But I challenge you to consider if self-hatred will get you closer to being the kind of person you want to be, or will self-compassion, self-love, kindness. (Hint, the first one isn’t the answer.)
Another defense I see in my office….. We try to avoid the painful thoughts and feelings. And it may work for a little while. But more often than not when we do this, we are hit back with those same thoughts and feelings but even more intense. Avoidance is a coping strategy for sure, but its benefits are limited. Self-compassion can mitigate a lot of this increment pain. (Plus, when we avoid pain, we can’t see it clearly and it prevents us from having compassion for ourselves). Instead, we need to not avoid the painful emotions, and embrace them before they spiral out of control. To sit with and accept your emotions, letting them flow through you is compassionate; we are allowing the emotions that cause us stress and physical anguish to come and go instead of pushing them away. By letting them flow freely, we can feel less stress and the painful time will be shorter as there is no back and forth battle between you and your emotions. I like to think of it this way. When we let them come, with little resistance, we take away a whole lot of their power, and then they are not as bad.
We don’t need to be afraid of our feelings. We can be compassionate about our experiences, and deal with them at the same time.
Still not convinced? Some well-known mental health benefits of regular self-compassion include:
-Lower depression and anxiety
-Increased physical health and overall life satisfaction
-Higher resilience when faced with internal and external strife
-Lower likelihood of rumination on past negative experiences.
Kristen Neff is the big name in self compassion (see some links to her stuff below). She suggested that there are generally three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. These steps/thought processes usually look a little like this.
Alright, alright. But how could I actually do it? Here are some awesome ways to practice self-compassion:
Fulfill your physical needs – This does not mean to fall into negative habits like laying in bed all day or eating anything and everything. Instead, to fulfill your physical needs is to ensure your own health and well-being. This could include exercise, eating healthy meals, meditating, physical self-care, etc. Self-compassion is not about self-pity or giving in to all of your desires that may harm you in the long run.
Write a letter – Although it may seem silly at first, try writing a letter to yourself acknowledging a negative experience/event that caused you to suffer without blaming anyone in your letter. It may help with accepting the negative experience and keep you from ruminating on it any further.
Give encouragement to yourself – tell yourself the compassionate responses you would give to a friend if a similar negative experience happened to them
Mindfulness – As mentioned above, mindfulness is one of the main components of self-compassion, thus it is one of the best ways to practice it. Start by sitting with yourself, recognizing your feelings without judgment. Allow them to flow through you as you focus on the present moment.
Reframe – Don’t feel bad about criticism that comes to mind when you are trying to practice self-compassion, instead, take that criticism and reframe the statement into something positive. Make sure this reframed statement is something that supports you without judging whatever aspect of yourself you were criticizing in the first place. If you wouldn’t say that criticism to a friend, don’t say it to yourself!
Fill your cup – Although this may seem vague, the things that fill your cup are specific to you. It may be best to start by making a list of all of the things you know that make you feel emotionally, mentally, or physically recharged and choose a few to seek out.
Write out your accomplishments – This is especially helpful if you feel that you have not accomplished enough and are looking at yourself as inadequate. Instead of ruminating on what you haven’t finished, think about and list out what you have. I guarantee that you can write down something no matter what you’ve done throughout the day. Even waking up and getting ready is an accomplishment. Go you!
Soften your words and tone – Again, it is important to not only reframe what you tell yourself but to also soften your entire approach to comforting yourself. Even with reframing, our thoughts may be harsh and the tone may stay critical. Instead of sitting with a slightly negative bunch of reframed statements, try to apply understanding and acceptance to these new thoughts. Understand that you are not alone and that everyone has their own struggles and have probably felt like you at some point. Accept exactly where you are mentally and emotionally and try to let go of any judgment.
Breathe- If practicing mindfulness and allowing thoughts and feelings to flow through you without resistance proves overwhelming, try focusing on breathing instead for as long as you need. This may seem like a fake practice of self-compassion but it is 100% alright to sit and decompress instead of thinking about anything at all. Sometimes, allowing ourselves to do something so simple and basic is the most self-compassionate thing we can do.
Recognize your limits – Although you may want to try to go through with everything you have planned, it is best to say no if you need to. It is important to accept what you can and can’t do and to only say yes to things you know you can handle. Sometimes this is the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself. To not only accept that you are unable to fulfill whatever obligation that comes up, but to also have the courage to assertively say “No” can be incredibly kind to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
No one is perfect. There’s no need to beat ourselves up for mistakes or failures. They will happen. The question is, how will we treat ourselves through that? Most of us have learned to be kind to others, to treat them with respect and friendship. Now, try turning some of your compassion for others inward. You deserve it. You do. That’s not negotiable.
– Dr. M