What is not self compassion?
Self-compassion is not self-pity, weakness, self-esteem, or selfishness. When individuals feel self-pity, they become immersed in their own problems and feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-compassion makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness. This paradoxically helps us process and let go of these feelings without long-term negative consequences, and with a better ability to recognize the suffering of others.
Self-compassion allows us to be our own inner ally and strengthens our ability to cope successfully when life gets hard. Self-compassion will not make you weak and vulnerable. It is a reliable source of inner strength that enhances resilience when faced with difficulties. Research shows self-compassionate people are better able to cope with tough situations like divorce, trauma, and crisis.
Self-compassion and self-esteem are important to well-being; however, they are not the same. Self-esteem refers to a judgment or evaluation of our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While self-compassion relates to the changing landscape of who we are with kindness and acceptance – especially in times when we feel useless, inadequate, or hopeless – self-esteem allows for greater self-clarity, independent of external circumstances, and acknowledges that all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess certain traits or have a certain perceive valued, but because we share the human experience and the human condition of imperfection. Finally, self-compassion is not selfish, as practicing it helps people sustain the act of caring for others and decrease caregiver burnout.6,7
Strategies to practice self-compassion
There are many ways to practice self-compassion. Here are a few experiences created by Dr. Neff, a leader in the field.8
Experience 1: How would you treat a friend?
How do you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when he or she is suffering? Why not try treating yourself like a good friend and see what happens.
Take out a sheet of paper and write down your answer to the following questions:
- First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself or is really struggling in some way. How would you respond to your friend in this situation (especially when you’re at your best)? Write down what you typically do and say and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
- Second, think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Write down what you typically do and say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
- Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
- Please write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering.
Experience 2: Take a self-compassion break
This practice can be used any time of day or night, with others or alone. It will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion when you need it most.
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind, and if you feel comfortable, allow yourself to experience these feelings and emotions, without judgment and without altering them to what you think they should be.
- Say to yourself one of the following: “This is a difficult moment,” “This is a moment of suffering,” “This is stress,” “This hurts,” or “Ouch.” Doing this step is “mindfulness”: A willingness to observe negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness, without judgment.
- Find your equilibrium of observation with thoughts and feelings. Try not to suppress or deny them and try not to get caught up and swept away by them.
- Remind yourself of the shared human experience. Recognize that suffering and personal difficulty is something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. Remind yourself that “other people feel this way,” “I’m not alone,” and “we all have struggles in life.”
- Be kind to yourself and ask: “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? For example: “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.” There is no wrong answer.
Exercise 3: Explore self-compassion through writing
Everybody has something about themselves that they don’t like; something that causes them to feel shame, to feel insecure, or not “good enough.” This exercise will help you write a letter to yourself about this issue from a place of acceptance and compassion. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier with practice.
- Write about an issue you have that makes you feel inadequate or bad about yourself (physical appearance, work, or relationship issue) What emotions do you experience when you think about this aspect of yourself? Try to only feel your emotions exactly as they are – no more, no less – and then write about them.
- Write a letter as if you were talking to a dearly beloved friend who was struggling with the same concerns as you and has the same strengths and weaknesses as you. How would you convey deep compassion, especially for the pain you feel when they judge themselves so harshly? What would you write to your friend to remind them that they are only human, that all people have both strengths and weaknesses? As you write, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of acceptance, kindness, caring, and desire for their health and happiness.
- After writing the letter, put it aside 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. Love, connection, and acceptance are a part of your human right. To claim them you need only look within yourself.