What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is the art of nurturing yourself through moments of mental suffering. When you are overwhelmed by life’s problems, when you are at the mercy of your internal critic, or when you are distressed by the behaviour of others. It’s beauty lies in its gentle, self-healing touch, grounded in forgiveness.

This self-healing art is based on mindfulness, acceptance and self-nurturing. Through which we defuse from self-critical thoughts and learn to accept ourselves for what we are, despite our imperfections. In this way we can find peace from suffering.

Why self-compassion is important

Self-compassion is crucial for mental and emotional well-being. Without it we can become trapped in negative self-judgments that lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. When we practice self-compassion we learn to treat ourselves with kindness and understanding, just as we would a close friend or loved one.

Self-compassion allows us to let go of the need for perfectionism and the constant pursuit of validation through others. Leading from there to self-acceptance and self-validation.

Practicing self-compassion has a number of benefits for mental and emotional well-being. These include:

  • Increased happiness and self-esteem
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Improved relationships with others
  • Increased resilience and ability to adapt to stress
  • Greater overall life satisfaction

Understanding Your Internal Critic

One of the biggest obstacles to practicing self-compassion is our inner critic. This internal judge is the voice inside our head that tells us we’re not good enough, smart enough, or talented enough. It’s the voice that points out our flaws and mistakes, and tells us we’ll never be Ok.

The internal critic springs from the ego that develops in early childhood.  The child somehow learns that she is not good enough, and is lacking in something. That could be a sense that we don’t measure up to others’ expectations, that we are not lovable, that we don’t fit in, or that we are just no good at anything. One reason for this is that our parents unwittingly use the pronoun ‘you’.

For example, the parent might say ‘YOU are lazy’ instead of saying ‘it’s lazy not to put your things away‘. The first statement is heard as a judgment on the self, rather than on the child’s behaviour. Children internalise this way of judging, and so the inner critic is born.

The internal critic tries to compensate for the idea that there is something lacking by pushing the child to remedy the deficit. This could mean working harder at school, obeying the rules, or competing for success. But taken to an extreme this may also lead to people-pleasing, blind conformism, worries about failure, and a life-time of harsh self-criticism when we make mistakes.

To practice self-compassion it’s important to first recognise when the critic has hijacked the thinking mind. When this happens any of the following thought patterns may occur:

  • Thinking we are failures, and it is hopeless to try and change.
  • Worries about what others think of us, and the anxiety that comes with it.
  • Self-damnation when we recall our past mistakes, and the cringing that comes with that.
  • Frustration over our imperfections.
  • Believing we are unlovable and unwanted.

When we become aware of negative self-talk, and the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect, we can practice defusing from these thoughts, replacing them with self-compassionate ones.

Embracing imperfection

Perfectionism is another common obstacle to self-acceptance. When we strive for perfection, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and self-criticism. Instead, it’s important to embrace imperfection and recognize that it’s a natural part of the human experience.

To let go of perfectionism, we can start by reframing our thoughts and expectations. Instead of caving into the internal critic’s demand for perfection, we can focus instead on life’s journey, and how mistakes lead to learning, progress and maturity. This makes it easier to forgive and let go when we fall short of expectations.

The role of kindness in self-compassion

Kindness is a crucial component of self-compassion. When we treat ourselves with kindness, we are acknowledging our own worth and value as a human being. While recognising that we are doing the best we can, and that mistakes and failures are a natural part of the learning process. We can also allow ourselves to feel sorrow over the suffering we are going through, and forgive ourselves for our shortcomings.

To practice kindness towards ourselves, we can start by imagining what a kind friend might say to us when we are feeling down. Then to speak to ourselves in exactly the same way. More on this in the step-by-step process given below.

We can also be kinder on ourselves through self-nurturing behaviour. This could involve taking time out from stressful situations, saying ‘no’ to things that don’t serve us, and setting personal boundaries with others. More self nurturing activities are listed below.

Nurturing Yourself: practicing self-care

Practicing self-care is another crucial component of self-compassion. When we give time to doing things that ground us, calm us or that console us through troubled times, we recognise that life can be hard, and that we need comforting. Self-nurturing is also a key to building resilience.

Grounding activities, such as breathing exercises, are helpful to do when we are stressed or overwhelmed. For a complete list of grounding activities see this list here.

Calming activities are anything that assists us to restore balance and serenity to existence. Mindfulness is one example, but there are others. See this list of 30 activities to reduce stress for more.

Consoling activities are things that help us through misfortune. Talking to friends and loved ones are good examples. Others include painting and other creative arts, hobbies, spending time with pets, and treating ourselves to luxuries.

Uncluttering the mind

Prior to practicing the step-by-step process of self-compassion given below, it can be useful to de-clutter the mind of unhelpful thoughts. This is especially helpful when we are over-thinking problems. One straightforward way to do that is to listen to mindfulness tapes.

The process described requires you to be in present moment awareness, with a clear mind capable of tuning into distressed feelings, reflecting on your submerged needs, and exercising self-compassion.

Acceptance is key

A common mistake is to try and avoid suffering. But when we hide from pain, or smother it with distractions it comes back at us with still more force. As the old cliche in psychotherapy states: What we resist persists. We can’t heal our suffering until we have first recognised it is there. Acceptance doesn’t mean we approve the pain; it simply means meeting it head on so that we can work with it.

A step by step process for self-compassion

  1. Find a quiet space
  2. Go into present moment awareness
  3. Tune into your feelings, which will lie anywhere between your throat and your abdomen. It can help to put one hand on the spot.
  4. Name the feelings. E.g. ‘I am scared, frustrated, anxious, in pain…”
  5. Name the thoughts. E.g. ‘I am thinking I don’t want to be alone, I have failed, I can’t cope….”
  6. Name the images or memories. E.g. ‘I am seeing so and so”, ‘I am recalling what happened….”
  7. If self-judgments are there, disengage from the Internal Critic. One way to do that is tune out the critical voice in your head.
  8. Use words of Acceptance. E.g. “It’s ok to feel like this. I’m human like everybody else.”
  9. Ask yourself what you need right now. Kindness? Healing? Love? Consolation? Support? Advice?
  10. Imagine that you are surrounded by a healing, compassionate light. Alternatively, visualise a spiritual figure, mentor or someone who loves you deeply putting their arms around you in consolation.
  11. Now release your attachment to the pain: “I can let this go now”. “I’m done with this.” “It’s Ok.”

Journaling as an aid to self-compassion

Keep a record of your experiences with suffering, and your related work with the self-compassion process. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you to look at them more objectively. As you develop your skills in acceptance, forgiveness and letting go, journaling your experiences will help you identify the strategies that work best for you, and will strengthen your confidence in the process.

Self-compassion in therapy

If you struggle with the advice given in this article, or require further support in learning the art of self-compassion then please consider making an appointment with a psychotherapist who can assist you.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash


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