My therapy practice is all about learning how to love yourself first. While most of my clients are apt at showing others that they love and care for them, when it comes to themselves, they struggle a lot with the idea of self-compassion. But what does “self-compassion” mean, and more importantly, how do you practice it in real-time? This post will go through a personal example to walk you through the steps of learning how to be self-compassionate.
After a busy work season, family visits and battling colds, I recently found myself quite behind on my to-do list. As I watched the days go by without much “productivity,” my inner critic gleefully jumped on her megaphone to barrage me with the message that I am not good enough by comparing me unfavorably to other “boss moms” I knew. The more my critic pointed out my flaws, the more anxious and battered I felt, leading me to hide in mindless distractions. This would just further feed my inner critic’s belief that I can’t succeed in life. Does any of this sound familiar? Have you ever felt utterly defeated by your inner critic’s tirade? I know I did.
This is where the practice of self-compassion can offer something different. The definition of self-compassion is, “A sensitivity to your own suffering, with a commitment to alleviate and prevent it.” It is a Buddhist practice that was adopted by Western psychology to alleviate mental suffering. Self-compassion can be broken into three components, each of which I’ll discuss below.
In order to be sensitive to our suffering or pain, we need to first become aware of it and bring our attention toward it. However the key point here is to observe our suffering without judgment. This can seem indulgent for many of us as it challenges the idea that we should be invincible. You can bet your bottom dollar that the instant you notice that your pain, there will be thoughts in your mind that will create all sorts of stories on how or why you are suffering. Our job is to breathe deeply, and to focus simply on the fact that we are not doing well. The what, why or how, are not important right now. For me, it means taking deep breaths as my inner critic starts to appear, and then gently, but firmly, telling her to pipe down because I need to hear a different voice, one of self-kindness.
The second component of self-compassion is showing ourselves kindness. Self-kindness means, “To be gentle and understanding with ourselves, rather than harshly critical and judgmental.” This can be a rather foreign concept for those of us who grew up in critical or judgmental homes. Being mean or harsh to ourselves may be all that we know. However, in my ten years of working with individuals who have been on the receiving end of horrible treatment, I have yet to meet a single person incapable of showing some compassion to others. We all know what it feels to have kindness in our hearts for others. It is in that knowing smile you give to a harried parent with the screaming child. Or maybe the encouraging nod you give to one of your colleagues stumbling through a presentation. Or it can even be seeing an old, grizzled dog, slowly going for its walk. We notice the suffering in others and our hearts open with understanding and kindness. We want things to be better for the person suffering in front of us and so send silent, or not so silent, messages of encouragement and compassion. Self-kindness is the practice of turning that loving energy towards ourselves. For me, I imagine a friend describe the exact situation I am in and then I pay attention to how I would respond: that gives me clues on what to say to myself. In my example, self-kindness looked like this: “Wow, you have been really busy, trying to juggle many responsibilities that seem to get in the way of each other. It’s been hard, so no wonder you are feeling exhausted and frazzled. I think you need a break to recuperate and reassess your priorities.” And then my inner critic will snap back, “Well, everyone else seems to have their priorities straight, so why don’t you?” To respond to unhelpful comparisons that usually crop up, I have to remind myself about the third component of self-compassion, which is acknowledging common humanity.
3. Common Humanity
Acknowledging our common humanity requires us to, “Acknowledge that every human being suffers and that we are not alone in our experience.”2 It means intentionally thinking of others who have struggled like you instead of wistfully stalking the Insta-worthy folks. Everyone struggles and fails: it is a part of the human experience. Once we learn to accept this fact, then when we mess up or things don’t end up the way we would have liked, we can view this as an inevitable blip in our road, rather than create a dramatic view of why we shouldn’t experience hardship. Acknowledging that we are not immune to bad things happening to us can help us from falling prey to a feeling of helplessness, and it can reinforce the fact that we are not alone in our suffering. Everyone suffers at some point in their lives. For me, I used a Facebook group of really supportive mothers to look for posts from other women who were struggling with balancing all of their responsibilities. I almost instantly felt a bit better knowing that it is not just me, and that there isn’t something inherently wrong with me.
So if we put it all together, being self-compassion can look like this:
- “Hey, I am not doing well. I am feeling _________ (insert emotions or sensations you are experiencing).”
- Take a deep breath (or as many as you need) to quiet your inner critic.
- “I can see why I am struggling right now. It’s because ___________ (insert a compassionate view of why you are feeling the way that you are). I think I need _____________ (name something that can alleviate your suffering).”
- “I know I’m not the only one going through this. ___________ (find someone who has shared your experience) went through this too. We all experience ups and downs as a part of life. I don’t need to be/things don’t need to be perfect.”
In my experience, as well as those of my clients, when we manage to interrupt our negative self-talk with self-compassion, we begin to experience small, but noticeable, amounts of relief. We find the courage to take steps to alleviate our suffering. And in this way, we learn to love ourselves.
 Kolts, Russell. (2016) CFT Made Simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
 Kneff, Kristin. (2011) Self-Compassion. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.