Few of us would berate a friend who was going through a rough time or impart harsh words on a stranger we saw suffering—and yet we may not hesitate to be that hard on ourselves failing to realize just how damaging it can be. Instead of helping you reach your goals or become a better version of yourself, self-criticism leads to feelings of failure, lowness, erodes your peace of mind and feelings of safety.
This is where self-compassion, or acting toward ourselves the way we would toward someone else, can be helpful. Unlike self-indulgence or selfishness, self-compassion involves extending the same compassion we would offer to others—particularly those we care deeply about—to ourselves and entails three key ingredients (Neff, 2003):
- Self-kindness: offering yourself warmth and understanding rather than self-judgement;
- Common humanity: remembering that all human beings make mistakes and experience pain, rather than feeling isolated in your suffering
- Mindfulness: observing your thoughts and emotions in a balanced way, without becoming consumed by them.
Beyond giving ourselves a much-needed break, there are lots of other benefits to self-compassion, including increased resilience when it comes to life’s stressors, boosted feelings of happiness, and less anxiety and depression. The simple act of offering ourselves compassion has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, calm cardiovascular stress, and activate the oxytocinergic system; a system responsible for behaviours such as trust, empathy, and safety (Hurlemann et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2019). Given these benefits, and even if you don’t know much about acts of self-compassion, it might be helpful to extend some kindness toward yourself, at the very least. So, how can you start practising self-compassion right away?
1) Practice Self-Forgiveness
An important step in self-compassion is to forgive yourself. And keep doing so every day. Choosing to forgive yourself doesn’t mean you are weak. It does not mean you are “off the hook” for what happened. It does not mean you tolerate harmful behaviours that occurred. Forgiveness, whether of someone else or of yourself, means you accept actions and behaviours that occurred while willing to move forward. Forgiving yourself means letting go of the feelings and emotions associated with what went wrong. There’s no point in punishing yourself for your past mistakes. What makes sense is learning from them and growing as a person. You will never be flawless and faultless – because no one is. Yet, your most profound worth doesn’t come from being perfect, successful, recognized, famous, or whatever your poison may be. With self-compassion, you’ll learn to allow yourself to be imperfect – and love yourself as such.
2) Write a letter to yourself from an imaginary compassionate friend
This may sound odd but writing from another perspective will help reframe your thoughts from self-critical to more flexible and kind. You’ll realise how you should be treating yourself all the time and can start allowing that compassion into your own life. To complete this exercise, think about an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate. Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend – focusing on the perceived inadequacy you tend to judge yourself for: what would this friend say to you about your “flaw” from the perspective of unlimited compassion? What would this friend write in order to remind you that you are only human, that all people have both strengths and weaknesses?
3) Express gratitude
Gratitude involves the recognition of the positive things in your life and how they benefit you. This can range from acknowledging beautiful flowers to a meal someone prepared for you. Gratitude is considered an attitude or an approach which allows us to unlock the fullness of life because we focus and appreciate what we do have right now, rather than wish for what we don’t have. This helps to decrease feelings of resentment, rumination, and allows us to connect with others (Amin et al., 2018; Krysinska et al., 2015; Lin, 2015). One way you can practise gratitude daily by writing in a gratitude journal. In focusing on your blessings, you speak from a kinder inner voice. In turn, this allows you to move away from the negative aspects of your life and instead turn our attention towards what you do have.
4) Spend time doing things you truly enjoy
If you’re struggling with shame, enjoying pleasurable activities can be seen as something you don’t deserve. But each and every one of us deserves to engage in joyful, uplifting, and exciting experiences. Happiness has been linked to the reduction of heart disease, a stronger immune system, lower cortisol levels, increased longevity, and better decision-making. Allowing yourself to experience true happiness—to take time from your life to do something you love—is an act of compassion.
Amin, A., Khalid, Z., Ashraf, M. Z., Khan, H., & Pervaiz, S. (2018). Gratitude & Self Esteem Among College students. Journal of Psychology & Clinical Psychiatry, 9(4). https://doi.org/10.15406/jpcpy.2018.09.00546
Hurlemann, R., Patin, A., Onur, O. A., Cohen, M. X., Baumgartner, T., Metzler, S., Dziobek, I., Gallinat, J., Wagner, M., Maier, W., & Kendrick, K. M. (2010). Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(14), 4999–5007. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.5538-09.2010
Krysinska, K., Lester, D., Lyke, J., & Corveleyn, J. (2015). Trait gratitude and suicidal ideation and behavior. Crisis, 36(4), 291–296. https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000320
Lin, C.-C. (2015). The effect of higher-order gratitude on mental well-being: Beyond personality and Unifactoral Gratitude. Current Psychology, 36(1), 127–135. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-015-9392-0
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101. doi: 10.1080/15298860309032
Wang, P., Wang, S. C., Yang, H., Lv, C., Jia, S., Liu, X., Wang, X., Meng, D., Qin, D., Zhu, H., & Wang, Y.-F. (2019). Therapeutic potential of oxytocin in atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease: Mechanisms and signaling pathways. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2019.00454
About the Author:
Kayla Spicer is a Master’s student in Counselling Psychology at the University of Ottawa and is completing her practicum at Uprise Psychology & Wellness under the supervision of Dr. Melisa Arias-Valenzuela, C. Psych. Kayla has a strong interest for mindfulness and compassion-based interventions and her master’s thesis focuses on the perceived benefits, challenges, changes in the way one copes with stress, and overall impressions of the experience of the 6-week Short Course in Mindful Self-Compassion (SC-MSC).