Self compassion is one of the greatest practices we can develop for enhancing our wellbeing, and it's something I help nearly all my clients work on. Many people come to therapy with a strong inner critic that judges them harshly and they find it very difficult to accept and be compassionate to themselves. What is surprising is that often they will show deep compassion and empathy for others but for some reason they feel selfish or indulgent if they extend the same compassion & understanding to themselves, however self compassion isn't self indulgent or self pitying and it can go a long way to improving our mental health.
We grow up in a society that tells us that we should have high self esteem and many of us have spent a long time trying to achieve this, however we often validate ourselves and base our self esteem on things external to us. For instance we feel good about ourselves if we achieve good grades in an exam or we get a promotion but we are often caught up in the idea that to feel good about ourselves we must be performing above average - and not all of us can be above average! This means that even when we do feel good about ourselves and have high self esteem this can be incredibly difficult to hold on to. It is important to have self esteem however if it is built on external factors this can leave you very vulnerable to life's knocks, set backs and challenges.
Self compassion is not the same thing as self esteem, although people with a lack of self compassion may also have poor self esteem - self esteem is a type of self evaluation whereas self compassion is a form of self acceptance. Many of us can become critical, judgemental & shaming towards ourselves when we make a mistake or fail in some way and this can cause our self esteem to plummet, self compassion is about accepting mistakes & failures and showing ourselves kindness & understanding. When we do this we build strong foundations for true self esteem & self worth. We can feel good about ourselves despite what we achieve or what challenges we face.
This makes sense... think back to when you were at school and you were trying to learn a new skill, something that you were finding challenging and difficult. Imagine 2 different scenarios, in the first one your teacher criticises you and tells you how useless you are, they may even jeer at you for attempting to learn a new skill. In the second scenario the teacher is kind, gentle & encouraging. In which scenario do you feel you would best develop that new skill or continue with something difficult?
When we are harsh & judgmental towards ourselves we remain stuck where we are, we cannot keep trying because we feel so rubbish therefore self criticism actually prevents us from achieving rather than motivates us. This is why self compassion is not indulgent or self pitying, it is seeing things as they are, accepting where you're at and showing yourself the kindness, understanding and encouragement you need to get you moving once again.
Researcher Dr Kristin Neff as identified 3 components to self compassion:
Self-kindness vs self judgement - refraining from harsh criticism of the self.
Recognizing one's own humanity - all people are imperfect and all people experience pain.
Mindfulness, or maintaining a non-biased awareness of experiences, even those that are painful, rather than either ignoring or exaggerating their effect.
You can read more about them here.
Tools For Developing Self Compassion
Here are a few different exercises that I like to use with clients to help them become more compassionate towards themselves. As I said earlier, the majority of people I speak to are already compassionate to others in their life and therefore most of the work is learning how to extend that to themselves rather than developing compassion from scratch.
List out the criticisms and judgements you say to yourself, you will most likely write these as "I statements" to begin with. For example "I am a failure" "I can't do anything right" "I'm the worst friend/parent". Now rewrite all of the statements but swapping the "I" to "You" and reflect on how harsh they sound and how uncomfortable you would probably be saying these to someone else. This can be a useful exercise for seeing how critical you are really being. Finally write an encouraging reframe next to the "you statements" and read them aloud to yourself. e.g. "I can't do anything right" - "You can't do anything right" - "You made a mistake but all humans make mistakes and are imperfect. You have learned a lot from this experience and this will help you to make better decisions in the future". You can use these as mantras when you are next having a hard time or revisit this exercise if you notice yourself becoming extra critical once again.
Write Yourself a Letter When you are having a hard time and you find yourself full of self criticism, grab a paper and pen and sit somewhere quiet. Think about a close friend that you care about, now write yourself an encouraging letter, imagining that you are your friend. What compassionate and understanding things would you say to them in your situtation? Now read your letter back and store it somewhere safe to reread on another day when you are being extra critical.
Practising Self Care
Practicing self care is an important part of having enough emotional bandwidth to practise self compassion. We all know how hard it is to be patient and understanding with others when we are tired, stressed and overwhelmed and the same applies when we are trying to be compassionate towards ourselves. Self care looks different for everyone and can even be different on different days, but one way to check in with yourself is it to pause and ask "what do I need right now?". I have written a whole blog post on how to begin practising self care so go read that here if you want help in understanding what will work for you. Therapy can also be a really great tool for understanding yourself better, getting in touch with your emotions and working out what you need and therefore help you to develop both a self care practice and self compassion, please get in touch if you would like to explore how you can work with me. In addition to working 1-1 with me, another way I would love to help you is through my monthly email The Nudge. This is a monthly email of self care reminders & reflection prompts to help you check in with yourself at the beginning of each month. If that sounds helpful and you would like to be added to my list please fill out your email address here.
I am an Integrative Therapist who works remotely online with millennials who are anxious, lost, and overwhelmed. I work collaboratively with people to support them in their emotional wellbeing, to develop skills in self-care and to foster a deeper understanding of themselves. If you would like to find out how I can help you to understand your emotions better, please book a free consultation to see if we are well suited to work together.
Alternatively, please come connect with me over on Instagram - I would love to get to know you further.