By: Juliet Ernst, AMFT/APCC
In my work as a therapist, I have noticed that many of my clients are quite unkind to themselves. Can you relate? We criticize our efforts. We “compare and despair” with others. Then, when this predictably leaves us with a vague sense of discouragement, we blame ourselves for feeling discouraged! When a client describes this kind of inner struggle – and it happens a lot – I will often raise the idea of self-compassion in response.
What is Self-Compassion?
First, let’s define compassion. Com-, from a root meaning “with, together” and -passion, from a root meaning “suffering.” Compassion means to feel with, to suffer with. Self-compassion, then, is the idea of treating yourself with that sort of deliberate, companionate kindness, as you would a hurting friend.
Research about self-compassion as a Western psychological construct has blossomed in the past 20 years, popularized notably by US psychologist Kristin Neff. According to Neff, self-compassion is defined by three main qualities:
A stance of self-kindness rather than self-judgment (because judging yourself only makes hard things harder)
Recognizing your common humanity with others (because all beings suffer in their own way)
Maintaining a level distance from your thoughts, or mindfulness (because there is always a more neutral place from which you can observe your situation, even at its most challenging).
Self-compassion alone will not solve your problems.
However, it is a stance you can adopt toward yourself that affirms your basic worth as a person, even when you’re distressed and imperfect. I have seen people free up a lot of energy when they stop being needlessly hard on themselves, energy that can then be better directed toward addressing their problem at hand. Research has shown that self-compassion is associated with greater overall psychological well-being, resilience, and decreased depression and anxiety.
How can I Cultivate Self-Compassion?
According to Neff, when you notice you are struggling with a difficult internal experience ...
Name the mental activity for what it is ("this is self-criticism/sadness/anger"), and deliberately say to yourself, "this feels hard right now," in your kindest inner voice, as if to an upset child.
Remind yourself that suffering is a part of life. Then wish yourself well, in whatever words make sense for you.
Spend a minute or two in this intentionally softened state before you return to your busy mind. While it may not feel like much, you have just done a mini-training session in self-compassion. And as with the muscles of your body, your compassion “muscle” will only strengthen the more you practice it.
And practice is the operative word!
For a long while, applying self-compassion may feel strange or silly. That's okay. Remember that you may be working against years of conditioning, from both within and outside, that has
trained you to find fault with yourself as a means of motivation. Just keep going. Your well-being is worth the effort!