Imagine you just witnessed your co-worker completely botch a presentation they had been working diligently on for weeks. What would you say to them? Would you keep bringing up their failure every day for the next several weeks? Chances are that you would probably be quick to offer words of encouragement and be sensitive to their feelings. Now imagine you botched your presentation. Would you be able to offer the same encouraging words and sensitivity towards yourself? For many of us, the answer is no. We tend to be harsh, critical and unforgiving of ourselves—bringing up the same mistakes in our minds over and over again. This type of self-punishment is neither productive nor healthy as it diminishes our psychological well-being by putting us in a negative state of mind.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is “the capacity to find the wisdom and dignity in one’s experience (particularly suffering), and to respond to it in an appropriately kind way,” according to Marriage and Family Therapist Lea Seigen Shinraku.¹ In other words, rather than mercilessly blaming yourself for mistakes and shortcomings, you accept and acknowledge your humanness with all that entails.
Self-compassion helps us get through difficult times by viewing and treating ourselves the way we would view and treat someone we care deeply about who is simply doing their best. Having compassion for ourselves increases our resilience and sense of self-worth, which in turn increases our ability to feel motivated and overall happy.
However, finding the capacity to approach our shortcomings and struggles with compassion can seem unattainable when we are at our lowest and feel unworthy of compassion. Psychotherapist Josephine Wiseheart, MS, encourages her clients not to wait until they feel like they ‘deserve’ self-compassion, or else it might never happen.¹ Rather, the action of practicing self-compassion and allowing kindness towards yourself will eventually make you feel worthy and deserving.
In practical terms, there are many ways to get started that are both approachable and easy to incorporate in your everyday life. Harvard Medical School’s publishing division shares these four simple ways to practice self-compassion.²
- Comfort your body. Eat something healthy. Lie down and rest. Massage your own neck, feet, or hands. Take a walk. Anything you can do to improve how you feel physically gives you a dose of self-compassion.
- Write a letter to yourself. Think of a situation that caused you to feel pain (a breakup with a lover, a job loss, a poorly received presentation). Write a letter to yourself describing the situation, but without blaming anyone — including yourself. Use this exercise to nurture your feelings.
- Give yourself encouragement. Think of what you would say to a good friend if he or she was facing a difficult or stressful situation. Then, when you find yourself in this kind of situation, direct these compassionate responses toward yourself.
- Practice mindfulness. Even a quick exercise, such as meditating for a few minutes, can be a great way to nurture and accept ourselves while we’re in pain.
So next time that familiar critical voice appears in your head, acknowledge its presence and then bring kindness and compassion to your experience, exactly like you would towards a good friend who was struggling. We all have days where we struggle or fail, but that does not make us unworthy of compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff elaborates, “having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. ….. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.” ³
Tartakovsky, Margarita. “9 Ways to Practice Self-Compassion When You Have Depression.” World of Psychology, 8 July 2018, psychcentral.com/blog/9-ways-to-practice-self-compassion-when-you-have-depression/.
Harvard Health Publishing. “4 Ways to Boost Your Self-Compassion.” Harvard Health, health.harvard.edu/mental-health/4-ways-to-boost-your-self-compassion.
Neff, Kristin. “Definition and Three Elements of Self Compassion | Kristin Neff.” Self-Compassion, self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/.