We have all built barriers to love. We’ve had to protect ourselves from the harsh realities of living a human life. But there is another way to feel safe and protected. When we are mindful of our struggles and respond to ourselves with self-compassion, kindness, and support in times of difficulty, things start to change.
We can learn to embrace ourselves and our lives, despite inner and outer imperfections, and provide ourselves with the strength needed to thrive. An explosion of research into self-compassion over the last decade has shown its benefits for well-being.
Individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction, and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression. They also have the resilience needed to cope with stressful life events such as divorce, health crises, academic failure, even combat trauma.
Learning to embrace yourself and your imperfections gives you the resilience needed to thrive.
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When we struggle, however—when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate—it’s hard to be mindful of what’s occurring; we’d rather scream and beat our fists on the table. Not only do we not like what’s happening, we think there is something wrong with us because it’s happening.
In the blink of an eye, we can go from “I don’t like this feeling” to “I don’t want this feeling” to “I shouldn’t have this feeling” to “Something is wrong with me for having this feeling” to “I’m bad!”
Learning to embrace yourself and your imperfections gives you the resilience needed to thrive. That’s where self-compassion comes in. Sometimes we need to comfort and soothe ourselves for how hard it is to be a human being before we can relate to our lives more mindfully.
Self-compassion emerges from the heart of mindfulness when we meet suffering in our lives. Mindfulness invites us to open to suffering from loving, spacious awareness.
Self-compassion adds, “Be kind to yourself suffering.” Together, mindfulness and self-compassion form a state of warm-hearted, connected presence during difficult moments in our lives.
Self-compassion springs from the heart of mindfulness during moments of suffering.
II. Mindful Self-Compassion:
Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) was the first training program specifically designed to enhance a person’s self-compassion. Mindfulness-based training programs such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy also increase self-compassion, but they do so more implicitly, as a welcome by-product of mindfulness.
Mindful Self Compassion was created as a way to explicitly teach the general public the skills needed to be self-compassionate in daily life. Mindful self-compassion is an eight-week course where trained teachers lead a group of 8 to 25 participants through the program for 2¾ hours each week, plus a half-day meditation retreat.
Research indicates that the program produces long-lasting increases in self-compassion and mindfulness, reduces anxiety and depression, enhances overall well-being, and even stabilizes glucose levels among people with diabetes.
III. Self-Kindness and Self-Empathy
Although a simple way to think about self-compassion is treating yourself as you would treat a good friend, the more complete definition involves three core elements that we bring to bear when we are in pain: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
When we make a mistake or fail in some way, we are more likely to beat ourselves up than put a supportive arm around our shoulders. Think of all the generous, caring people you know who constantly tear themselves down (this may even be you).
Self-kindness counters this tendency so that we are as caring toward ourselves as we are toward others. Rather than being harshly critical when noticing personal shortcomings, we are supportive and encouraging and aim to protect ourselves from harm.
Instead of attacking and berating ourselves for being inadequate, we offer ourselves warmth and unconditional acceptance. Similarly, when external life circumstances are challenging and feel too difficult to bear, we actively soothe and comfort ourselves.
2. Common Humanity.
A sense of interconnectedness is central to self-compassion. It’s recognizing that all humans are flawed works-in-progress, that everyone fails, makes mistakes, and experiences hardship in life. Self-compassion honors the unavoidable fact that life entails suffering, for everyone, without exception.
While this may seem obvious, it’s so easy to forget. We fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well and that something has gone wrong when they don’t. Of course, it’s highly likely—inevitable—that we’ll make mistakes and experience hardships regularly. This is completely normal and natural. But we don’t tend to be rational about these matters. Instead, not only do we suffer, we feel isolated and alone in our suffering.
When we remember that pain is part of the shared human experience, however, every moment of suffering is transformed into a moment of connection with others. The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain you feel in difficult times. The circumstances are different, the degree of pain is different, but the basic experience of human suffering is the same.
Mindfulness involves being aware of the moment-to-moment experience in a clear and balanced manner. It means being open to the reality of the present moment, allowing all thoughts, emotions, and sensations to enter awareness without resistance or avoidance.
Why is mindfulness an essential component of self-compassion?
Because we need to be able to turn toward and acknowledge when we’re suffering, to “be” with our pain long enough to respond with care and kindness. While it might seem that suffering is blindingly obvious, many people don’t acknowledge how much pain they’re in, especially when that pain stems from their self- criticism.
Or when confronted with life challenges, people often get so caught up in a problem-solving mode that they don’t pause to consider how hard it is in the moment. Mindfulness counters the tendency to avoid painful thoughts and emotions, allowing us to face the truth of our experience, even when it’s unpleasant.
At the same time, mindfulness prevents us from becoming absorbed by and “over-identified” with negative thoughts or feelings, from getting caught up and swept away by our aversive reactions. Rumination narrows our focus and exaggerates our experience. Not only did I fail, “I am a failure.” Not only was I disappointed, “my life is disappointing.”
When we mindfully observe our pain, however, we can acknowledge our suffering without exaggerating it, allowing us to take a wiser and more objective perspective on ourselves and our lives. To be self-compassionate, mindfulness is the first step we need to take— we need the presence of the mind to respond in a new way.
Cultivating a state of loving, connected presence can change our relationship with ourselves and the world around us.
Also Read: Habits That Are Beneficial To One’s Mental Health
IV. Compassionate self-exercise:
Self-compassion involves treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time—even if your friend blew it or is feeling inadequate, or is just facing a tough life challenge. Western culture places great emphasis on being kind to our friends, family, and neighbors who are struggling. Not so when it comes to ourselves.
Self-compassion is a practice in which we learn to be a good friend to ourselves when we need it most—to become an inner ally rather than an inner enemy. But typically we don’t treat ourselves as well as we treat our friends.
Through self-compassion we become an inner ally instead of an inner enemy.
1. Compassionate self-exercise #1: How Do I Treat a Friend?
How Do I Treat a Friend? Close your eyes and reflect for a moment on the following question:
- Think about various times when you’ve had a close friend who was struggling in some way—had a misfortune, failed, or felt inadequate— and you were feeling pretty good about yourself. How do you typically respond to your friends in such situations? What do you say? What tone do you use? How is your posture? Nonverbal gestures?
- Write down what you discovered.
Now close your eyes again and reflect on the next question:
- Think about various times when you were struggling in some way—had a misfortune, failed, or felt inadequate. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? What do you say? What tone do you use? Your posture? Nonverbal gestures?
- Write down what you discovered.
- Finally, consider the differences between how you treat your close friends when they are struggling and how you treat yourself. Do you notice any patterns?
Note: What came up for you while doing this practice? When they do this exercise many people are shocked at how badly they treat themselves compared to their friends. If you are one of these people, you are not alone.
Preliminary data suggests that the vast majority of people are more compassionate to others than to themselves. Our culture doesn’t encourage us to be kind to ourselves, so we need to intentionally practice changing our relationship with ourselves to counter the habits of a lifetime.
2. Compassionate self-exercise #2: Relating to Ourselves with Self-Compassion
- Think about a current struggle you’re going through in your life—one that’s not too serious. For example, maybe you fought with your partner, and you said something you regret. Or maybe you blew it on a work assignment, and you’re frightened your boss is going to call you in for a meeting to reprimand you.
- Write down the situation.
- First, write down any ways you may be lost in the storyline of the situation and running away with it. Is it all you can think about, or are you making a bigger deal out of things than is warranted? For example, are you terrified that you will be fired even though the mistake was pretty minor?
- Now see if you can mindfully acknowledge the pain involved in this situation without exaggerating it or being overly dramatic. Write down any painful or difficult feelings you may be having, trying to do so with a relatively objective and balanced tone.
Validate the difficulty of the situation, while trying not to get overly caught up in the storyline of what you’re feeling. For example: “I’m feeling really frightened that I will get in trouble with my boss after this incident. It’s difficult for me to feel this right now.”
- Next write down any ways you may be feeling isolated by the situation, thinking that it shouldn’t have happened or that you’re the only one who has been in this situation. For example, are you assuming that your work should be perfect and that it’s abnormal to make mistakes? That no one else at your work makes these types of mistakes?
- Now try to remind yourself of the common humanity of the situation—how normal it is to have feelings like this and the fact that many people are probably experiencing feelings similar to yours.
For example: “I guess it’s natural to feel frightened after making a mistake at work. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and I’m sure many other people have been in a similar situation to what I’m facing right now.”
- Next, write down any ways you may be judging yourself for what happened. For example, are you calling yourself names (“stupid idiot”) or being overly harsh with yourself (“You are always messing up. Why can’t you ever learn?”)?
- Finally, try writing yourself some words of kindness in response to the difficult emotions you are feeling. Write using the same type of gentle, supportive words you might use with a good friend you cared about.
For example: “I’m so sorry that you’re feeling frightened right now. I’m sure it will be okay, and I’ll be here to support you whatever happens.” Or else, “It’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to feel scared about the consequences. I know you did your best.”
- What was this practice like for you? Take a moment and try to fully accept how you’re feeling in this moment, allowing yourself to be just as you are.
- Some people feel soothed and comforted by words of mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness when they do this writing exercise. If it felt supportive for you, can you allow yourself to savor the feeling of caring for yourself in this way?
- For many people, however, writing in this way feels awkward or uncomfortable. If this describes your experience, can you allow yourself to learn at your own pace, knowing that it takes time to form new habits?
V. Mindfulness Self-Compassion Practices?
Keeping a Self-Compassion Journal
Try writing a self-compassion journal every day for one week (or longer if you like). Journaling is an effective way to express emotions and has been found to enhance both mental and physical well-being. At some point during the evening, when you have a few quiet moments, review the day’s events.
In your journal, write down anything that you felt bad about, anything you judged yourself for, or any difficult experience that caused you pain. (For instance, perhaps you got angry at the wait staff at a restaurant because they took forever to bring the check.
You made a rude comment and stormed off without leaving a tip. Afterward, you felt ashamed and embarrassed.) For each difficult event that happened during the day, try mindfulness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness to relate to the event in a more self-compassionate way.
This will mainly involve bringing balanced awareness to the painful emotions that arose due to your self-judgment or difficult circumstances. Write about how you felt: sad, ashamed, frightened, stressed, and so on.
As you write, try to be accepting and non-judgmental of your experience, without diminishing it or becoming overly dramatic. (For example, “I was frustrated because the waitperson was so slow. I got angry, overreacted, and felt foolish afterward.”)
2. Common Humanity
Write down how your experience was part of being human. This might include acknowledging that being human means being imperfect and that all people have these sorts of painful experiences. (“Everyone overreacts sometimes—it’s only human.”
“This is how people are likely to feel in a situation like that.”) You might also want to think about the unique causes and conditions underlying your painful event. (“My frustration was exacerbated by the fact that I was half an hour late for my doctor’s appointment across town, and there was a lot of traffic that day. If the circumstances had been different, my reaction probably would have been different.”)
3. Self- Kindness
Write yourself some kind, understanding words, much as you might write to a good friend. Let yourself know that you care about your happiness and wellbeing, adopting a gentle, reassuring tone. (“It’s okay. You messed up, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I understand how frustrated you were, and you just lost it. Maybe you can try being extra patient and generous to any wait staff you encounter this week.”)
After keeping your self-compassion journal for at least a week, ask yourself if you noticed any changes in your internal dialogue. How did it feel to write to yourself in a more self-compassionate manner? Do you think it helped you to cope with the difficulties that arose?
Some people will find that keeping a self-compassion journal is a wonderful way to help support their practice, while for others it may seem like a chore. It’s probably worth trying it out for a week or so, but if journal writing isn’t your thing, you can skip the writing part.
The important thing is that we practice all three steps of self-compassion— mindfully turning toward our pain, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience, and being kind and supportive to ourselves because things are difficult.
Mindful Self-Compassion practices can transform how you relate to yourself and in turn, transform your life.
VI. How to Be Kind to Yourself:
This practice is a way to help remind ourselves to apply the three core components of self-compassion— mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness— when difficulties arise in our lives. It also harnesses the power of soothing touch to help us feel safe and cared for.
It’s important to find language that is effective for you personally—you don’t want to have an internal argument about whether the words make sense. For example, some people prefer the word struggle to the word suffering, or prefer the word support or protect to the word kindness.
Try out a few different variations, and then practice what works for you. After reading through these instructions, you may want to try them out with your eyes closed so you can go inward more deeply.
How to be kind yourself to exercise:
- Think of a situation in your life that is causing you stress, such as a health problem, relationship problem, work problem, or some other struggle. Choose a problem in the mild to moderate range, not a big problem, as we want to build the resource of self-compassion gradually.
- Visualize the situation clearly in your mind’s eye. What is the setting? Who is saying what to whom? What is happening? What might happen? Can you feel discomfort in your body as you bring this difficulty to mind? If not, choose a slightly more difficult problem.
- Now, try saying to yourself: “This is a moment of suffering.”
- That’s mindfulness. Perhaps other wording speaks to you better. Some options are: This hurts, Ouch, and This is stressful.
- Now, try saying to yourself: “Suffering is a part of life.”
- That’s common humanity. Other options include: I’m not alone, everyone experiences this, just like me, and This is how it feels when people struggle in this way.
- Now, offer yourself the gesture of soothing touch that you discovered in the previous exercise. And try saying to yourself: “May I be kind to myself” or “May I give myself what I need.” Perhaps there are particular words of kindness and support that you need to hear right now in this difficult situation. Some options may be: May I accept myself as I am? May I begin to accept myself as I am? May I forgive me? Or, may I be strong? and May I be patient?
- If you’re having difficulty finding the right words, imagine that a dear friend or loved one is having the same problem as you. What would you say to this person? What simple message would you like to deliver to your friend, heart to heart?
- Now see if you can offer the same message to yourself.
- Take a moment to reflect on how the experience of this exercise was for you. Did you notice anything after you evoked mindfulness with the first phrase, “This is a moment of suffering”? Any shifts?
- How about the second phrase, reminding you of common humanity, or the third, which invited self-kindness? Were you able to find kind-hearted words you would say to a friend, and if so, what was it like to say the same words to yourself? Easy? More difficult?
- Sometimes it takes a bit of time to find language that works for you and feels authentic. Allow yourself to be a slow learner— eventually, you will find the right words.
- Note that this informal practice can be done slowly as a sort of mini-meditation, or you can use the words as a three-part mantra when you encounter difficulties in daily life.
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