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Self-compassion: A useful skill to help you stop being so hard on yourself


Do you find yourself frequently being critical or judgmental towards yourself? Do you feel like you have to be perfect all the time and get down on yourself for every flaw, mistake, or shortcoming? If this resonates with you, working towards garnering more self-compassion could help you.

What is self-compassion?

Compassion is the ability to be loving and empathetic towards others who are facing hardships, while self-compassion is simply the ability to direct this feeling of love and empathy toward your self. Many people I work with describe being compassionate towards others to be easy and natural for them, whereas being compassionate towards themselves is quite a challenge.

According to Kristin Neff, an academic and self-compassion researcher, self-compassion is composed of three parts.

  1. Self-kindness, or being warm and understanding towards oneself rather than self-critical.

  2. Common humanity, or recognizing that suffering and feelings of inadequacy are something all people experience.

  3. Mindfulness, or being aware of experiences in a non-judgmental way, and seeing them as they are rather than ignoring or exaggerating them.

How does self-compassion help?

Lacking the ability to be compassionate towards yourself can negatively impact your mental health. For instance, depression and anxiety are often driven and sustained by self-critical and harsh thoughts, such as:

Depression: I am worthless. I am unlovable.

General anxiety: I’m so worried I’ll mess up. It will be unacceptable if I mess up.

Social anxiety: Why’d I say that? Why am I so awkward? I’m so embarrassing.

It makes sense that when these negative critical thoughts go unchecked, it can take a toll on your mental health.

Barriers to self-compassion

“Self-compassion is just self-pity”

Many confuse self-compassion with self-pity, and experience an automatic negative perception of it. It is important to make a clear distinction between these two concepts. Self-pity is the act of feeling sorrow for one’s hardships and then staying stuck in that negative emotional place.

On the other hand, self-compassion involves being empathetic and acknowledging painful thoughts and feelings in a way to help them get unstuck, and move forward in the face of negative critical thoughts.

“If I’m self-compassionate I won’t perform as well”

Sometimes people indicate feeling that being perfectionistic and self-critical is protective and helps them excel. They worry that if they are more self-compassionate, their performance will drop and they will become complacent.

However, it is important to stress that being self-compassionate does not mean you no longer try to change or improve. Rather being self-compassionate means that efforts to change are driven by those changes being important to you, not because you feel unacceptable the way you are.

Also, given that self-critical comments can play an important role in sustaining symptoms of depression and anxiety, self-compassion may help you stave off mental health symptoms that otherwise make it difficult for you to be productive and motivated.

“Self-compassion won’t be accepted by others”

Many people are not taught to be self-compassionate within the context of their family background. You may have learned to be self-critical through it being modeled to you, or through growing up in an environment where you were criticized and judged.

Additionally, in many ways, daily messaging from society is often critical and harsh. For instance, advertising often focuses on letting you know what’s wrong with you, and what you need to buy to make yourself better. Images from the media often provide a subconscious reminder of what you are supposed to be like, look like, etc. to be valued.

Given these environmental factors, it’s natural that the idea of being self-compassionate may feel foreign and novel to you.

How can I develop self-compassion?

Self-compassion is a skill that can be developed through practice. The following are examples of strategies to take to develop greater self-compassion.

  1. Talk to yourself as though you were talking to a friend. When talking to yourself in a harsh way, ask yourself, would I talk to a friend or loved one this way? If not, then shift your self-talk accordingly.

  2. Write a compassionate letter to yourself. Identify something you are insecure about and write a letter in which you express compassion and acceptance towards yourself about this insecurity. Detailed instructions from UC Berkeley’s Great Good in Action website are provided in the link below.

  3. Practice loving-kindness meditation. This is a form of meditation in which you practice sending feelings of love and compassion towards yourself and others. Many meditation apps and online resources provide recordings of guided loving-kindness meditation. A link to a free, guided meditation practice from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center is provided below.

  4. Practice self-compassion statements. When you find yourself barraging yourself with critical comments, stop and instead think about what you could say to offer kindness to yourself in that moment. For example, if you are having a moment of feeling down or anxious, instead of thinking “What’s wrong with me? Why do I always feel like this?” You could think to yourself “Everyone feels this way sometimes” or “May I accept myself as I am.”

A Final Word

Please don’t criticize yourself for your difficulties being self-compassionate. I have heard from many people that they get frustrated with themselves when they find self-compassion hard to do.

Remember that self-compassion is a skill that takes time to learn, and takes practice. If you are struggling with being self-compassionate and want to talk about it, feel free to reach out for a free initial consultation.

Links:

https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/self_compassionate_letter