The Importance of Practicing Self-Compassion
Many of us feel that it’s much easier to have compassion, love, and empathy for others than it is to have for ourselves. We don’t often forgive ourselves for making mistakes or treat ourselves with the same kindness and support that we would others when we experience pain, suffering, or failure. For many, it’s second nature to fall into a pattern of negative rumination, judgment, and self-criticism which can be harmful to our mental health and overall well-being.
No one is perfect and messing up or falling short of expectations is an inevitable and universal human experience. We don’t always think this way though, and it’s easy to isolate ourselves and think that we’re the only ones struggling. But we do have the power to change this. Understanding and practicing self-compassion helps us to learn to care for and accept ourselves when things go wrong. Dr. Kristen Neff, a psychologist who pioneered research on self-compassion, describes it as treating yourself with kindness, gentleness, and understanding when you experience challenges, make mistakes, or feel inadequate, as well as accepting yourself unconditionally despite your imperfections or failures.
Dr. Neff outlined three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is simply just that, treating ourselves kindly and gently when things don’t go our way, avoiding judgment and criticism. Common humanity refers to the notion that everybody struggles, everybody fails, everybody hurts; it a part of life, a shared human experience. If we continue thinking that pain and inadequacy are unique to us, then we are likely to blame ourselves, assuming that there must be something inherently wrong with us. Lastly, mindfulness means allowing ourselves to notice and acknowledge negative thoughts and feelings just as they are, without changing, suppressing, or ignoring them. At the same time, we must also be careful not to exaggerate or over-identify with these thoughts and feelings so that we don’t get carried away in a cycle of negativity.
Research shows that practicing self-compassion has significant benefits for our mental health and overall well-being. Specifically, those who practice self-compassion experience greater social connectedness, emotional intelligence, happiness, and life satisfaction. Self-compassion has also been found to help reduce anxiety, depression, shame, and fear of failure, as well as increase self-esteem and resilience. Those who practice self-compassion are more likely to have healthy relationships with others as well as have a stable sense of self-worth, not requiring external validation to feel good about themselves.
Sounds pretty great, right? So, how do you do it? Here are some helpful ideas to start practicing self-compassion:
Forgive Yourself: Everybody has flaws, everybody messes up sometimes, and nobody is perfect. So stop beating yourself up for your mistakes and shortcomings, and practice forgiving yourself. Otherwise, you’ll stay stuck and prevent yourself from moving forward.
Use a Growth-Focused Lens: Instead of viewing challenges as impossible to overcome, or failures as permanent reflections of your worth or value, try reframing your lens. Think of these experiences as opportunities to learn, grow, and become a better you.
Express Gratitude: We all have things to be grateful for despite how we may think or feel when things go wrong. Find ways to show appreciation for what you do have instead of dwelling on what you don’t. A great way to do this is by creating a daily gratitude journal.
Speak Kindly About Yourself: Your words are powerful. When you say things like “I’m a failure, I’m a terrible person. I’m unworthy of love. Nobody will ever like me,” you will actually begin to believe them. Take control and change your narrative. Speak about yourself like you would a loved one, and you’ll start to change how you think and feel about yourself.
Connect with Others: This one’s important. Remember you’re not alone. Open up to people about what you’re going through, and more often than not you’ll be met with compassion and empathy. Leaning into opportunities to be vulnerable with others helps us to feel that kindness and support we may not be able to show ourselves yet.
Cultivate Radical & Unconditional Acceptance: Practice accepting yourself no matter what. You don’t have to like everything about yourself and you can always work to improve the things you don’t, but commit to accepting yourself as you are.
*Dr. Kristen Neff has created a series of guided meditations and exercises for practicing self-compassion. Find them here.