Karen is having a bad day. She forgot her bus pass, spilled coffee on her white blouse, and her bank account is overdrawn again. Her inner critical voice is in high gear creating a list of all her faults: “You should be more organized,” “You’re so clumsy,” You’re such a loser.” And now Karen is feeling down and anxious; there’s tension in her neck and shoulders and she feels discouraged. Can you relate?
Many of us seem to operate under the belief that self-criticism will motivate us to get things done or be the person we think we should be. However, the continuous noise from our inner critic can diminish our motivation, make us anxious and make us feel dissatisfied with our life. Self-criticism is strongly linked to depression: how can you be motivated to change if you’re experiencing depression?
In those moments when we’re struggling we may say things to ourselves that we would never consider saying to a good friend. Karen would not hesitate to offer heartfelt kindness to a good friend experiencing the challenges of a bad day. She would let the friend know that everyone has bad days, send a funny text or suggest getting together for a walk or coffee.
So how can we be kinder to ourselves? By cultivating self-compassion.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is a consistent attitude of kindness and acceptance of all aspects of our self: our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes, and our failures. It acknowledges our suffering and responds to that suffering with kindness, understanding, caring, and concern. Self-compassion can increase our motivation and emotional resilience, improve our body image and boost our happiness and optimism.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in self-compassion, identifies three main elements to self-compassion:
- self-kindness (instead of self-judgment)
- mindfulness (instead of over-identifying with our thoughts)
- common humanity (instead of feeling isolated from others; recognizing that we are not alone in our suffering).
Here are several ways to cultivate self-compassion and begin to be a better friend to yourself:
Acknowledge when you’re suffering and give yourself encouragement.
When something painful or disappointing happens to you, recognize what’s happening and ask yourself: How can I be kind to myself in this moment? What understanding and caring things would I say to a good friend who is experiencing this? Remind yourself that you can ask for help if you need it. Asking for help is a sign of strength and courage, not a sign of weakness.
Be aware of your self-talk.
You may not realize how often you criticize and judge yourself. Our minds are often running on autopilot and we don’t recognize the harm our negative self-talk is producing on a deep emotional level. Pay attention to your thoughts and the words you use to speak about yourself. Would you talk this way to someone you care about?
Comfort your body.
Activate your own parasympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that helps your body relax after a stress response) by eating something healthy, taking a walk, massaging your neck, feet or hands, or even giving yourself a hug.
Remember that no one is perfect and you’re not alone in your suffering.
Imperfection is part of being human. We all suffer; we are all vulnerable and feel inadequate at times. When we’re experiencing something difficult we can feel like we’re the only ones suffering and that everyone else has perfect lives. This can lead us to feel inadequate and isolated. When we remember that absolutely no one is perfect we can feel more connected to ourselves and others in our difficult moments.
Mindfulness is the nonjudgmental observation of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions without trying to change or deny them. It’s the ability to be fully present and aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s happening within and around you. If you’re on autopilot as many of us are, and you’re not aware that you’re suffering or you’re ignoring your pain, then you can’t give yourself the compassion that would help in that moment. Consider trying some guided mindfulness videos available on Youtube. With practice, mindfulness can retrain your brain so that self-compassion becomes more automatic and natural.
When you extend compassion to yourself you can connect with your own health, happiness, and reaching your highest potential, and this can ripple out to the connections you have with others. It is acknowledging that you are enough just as you are and loving yourself as a wonderfully imperfect, coffee-spilling human.
Want to learn more? Here are some great resources:
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff (2015). New York: HarperCollins.
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, by Christopher Germer (2009). New York: Guilford.
For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.