How can we be as kind to ourselves as we are to our dear friends? Self-compassion is here to help! We all know what it’s like to be compassionate toward others, opening our hearts and extending kindness when we see someone else suffering. Practicing self-compassion is simply (though it often doesn’t feel so simple!) a way to provide that same type of non-judgmental understanding to ourselves.
If we were this cute, it would be easy!
Studies have shown how increasing self-compassion can decrease anxiety and depression, and lead to greater well-being. So how do we implement it in our lives? First let’s get a better understanding of the idea. Psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff, who is in the forefront of self-compassion research and practice, breaks it down into 3 elements:
- Self-kindness – Treating ourselves with the same warmth, generosity, acceptance and forgiveness that we offer to our loved ones. This helps turn the volume down on that self-critical voice that sometimes (or often!) takes over when we’ve made a mistake or something goes wrong in our lives.
- Common Humanity – Reminding ourselves we are all human, and by nature we are imperfect (beautifully imperfect, I might add 💗). This recognition that we all make mistakes and experience suffering, helps us feel less alone and combats the tendency we might have to isolate and close ourselves off.
- Mindfulness – Bringing our attention to the present moment allows us to acknowledge the pain that exists and get some perspective. Once we have more awareness of our suffering, rather than avoiding it on one end, or getting too caught up in it on the other, we can then identify where we want to focus our compassion.
To sum it up, we can grow self-compassion by facing the hardships we encounter, knowing we are not the only ones who are experiencing pain, and giving ourselves a big ol’ hug like we would give a friend. This not only nurtures ourselves, but it expands our capacity for compassion all around. To better understand these three aspects, give yourself a “self-compassion break.” Click the button below to be led by Dr. Neff through a brief exercise.
Welcome back ☺️ Would love to hear what the experience was like for you. I took a workshop with Dr. Neff a few years ago, and to this day I still use some of the practices I learned through the experiential exercises.
One exercise that really resonated with me was around parenting challenges, but could also apply to any caregiving situation. Imagining a difficult moment – a child having a meltdown – she had us take a deep breath in, filling our body with compassion. On the exhale, we sent compassion to the child, who was clearly suffering in that moment. For the next inhale, we again drew in compassion, but this time on the exhale, we sent compassion out toward ourselves, acknowledging our own struggle in that moment. As a parent, I’ve had many occasions to practice this exercise, and have found it incredibly helpful! Think of it as a “one for you, one for me” concept, though feel free to take as many as you need for yourself in those moments.
One for you, 5 for me?! 😅
Another helpful tool for self-compassion practice can be to find a type of self-soothing touch that you respond to. When offering compassion to myself, I find it comforting to place a hand or hands over my heart. Other possibilities to try are holding your hands together, or cupping your cheeks, or giving yourself a hug. Did you ever do that silly thing where you put your arms around yourself and pretend like you’re making out with someone? So ridiculous. (I was quite good at that trick, because as I learned later in life, I have bizarrely long arms!) It could be a calmer, non-make-out version of that, or more like the main photo for this post. The idea is to try different versions and find what works best for you.
You: “If I do some of these exercises, and start being more self-compassionate, what might I experience?”
Me: Great question! So glad you asked. There is quite a bit of scientific research behind the practice of self-compassion and its positive effects. Multiple studies reveal that self-compassion:
- Promotes happiness – in this study, the participants who were trained in self-compassion experienced an increase in life satisfaction, happiness and positive emotion, as well as a decrease in depression and anxiety, compared with those in the control group, who experienced no change.
- Reduces stress – because of our dependence as babies on our parents, and our need to stay close, we’re wired to want warmth, nurturing touch and gentle voices. We experience a biological response when when we comfort ourselves, just as if we were being soothed by a parent. Practicing self-compassion releases Oxytocin, the hormone related to safety and connection, and lowers Cortisol levels, which helps to decrease stress.
- Deepens relationships – studies show that self-compassion not only supports inner well-being, but also leads to greater social connection.
- Strengthens our immune system – Higher levels of self-compassion have been shown to protect against inflammation. In addition, another study showed that people with more self-compassion were better able to cope with health challenges and pain.
The good news is that self-compassion can be taught and learned. If you’re interested in diving a little deeper, Dr. Neff has a handful of other exercises as well as guided meditations on her website, specifically geared toward supporting self-compassion. Also, depending on where you live, there might be self-compassion classes and workshops in your area. Recently I attended a class taught by my friend and colleague Kathryn Chaya Lubow at a place called The Den in Los Angeles. It was a treat to be guided through the process, in community with others. Even though were all having our own experiences, it was a real moment of connection to common humanity.
Would love to hear your thoughts about self-compassion. How might you go about strengthening your self-compassion muscle? If you’re up for it, the next time that self-critic takes a tone with you, what might you try differently?