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How to Practice Self-Compassion

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Sadly, for many of us, we are all too familiar with emotionally “beating ourselves up”. And, it’s not surprising. We live in a society where we’re taught that being hard on ourselves is the way to success. So, in an effort to get ahead, we criticize ourselves, push ourselves (often times too far) and certainly don’t give ourselves any breaks. However, research has shown that self-criticism is actually one of the barriers to success. In fact, studies suggest that self-criticism can actually sabotage us and produce a variety of negative consequences like lowered self-esteem, anxiety and depression.

We all have an inner critic, whether or not it is consciously known to us. Every day, we think about what we should be doing better, what we couldn’t do and curse ourselves for not getting things “right.” There comes a time when we realize that we can’t keep up with this inner critic and something needs to change. This change looks like self-love or self-compassion. Through this lens we realize that we aren’t perfect, that we are human – and that is okay.

The journey to self-compassion is a difficult one. It can be especially challenging for those of us who grew up in a household with a critical influence, or if we have experienced a trauma and feel guilt or shame. This article will describe the theory and the tools you will need to practice self-compassion without having to battle your inner critic.

What is self-Compassion?

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete” – Jack Kornfield

Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Think about a time when someone close to you was in pain. How did this make you feel? How did you respond? Compassion for others means that we see that they are suffering and feel moved by their experience. When our hearts are to another person’s pain we feel warmth, caring and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion means that we offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or when they make mistakes, rather than judging them or being overly critical. When we have compassion for another person we realize that imperfections are part of the shared human experience and as a result we feel a deeper sense of intimacy.

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing ourselves for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion teaches us to be kind and understanding of ourselves.

Tips for practice

For many, self-compassion is a foreign concept. Research shows that the more we practice being kind and compassionate with ourselves, the more we’ll increase our habit of self-compassion. In other words, if this practice is unfamiliar to you at first, keep it up! Over time self-compassion will come more easily and be more powerful. Remember, you are working on making a change because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or inadequate.

Practice #1: Embrace your Humanness

Like many things in life, the practice of self-compassion doesn’t always come easily. You will inevitably encounter frustrations, make mistakes, bump up against your limitations and fall short of your ideals throughout your lifetime. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself. The next time you are up against your inner critic, say to yourself with kindness and understanding: “Imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”

Practice #2: Be your Own Best Friend

Imagine a time when your best friend felt badly about him or herself or was really struggling in some way. How did you respond to your friend?Now, think about how you respond to yourself at a time when you feel bad or are struggling. If you are like most of us, you are probably harder on yourself than anyone else. The next time you are feeling down about something, challenge yourself to respond in the same way that you would typically respond to your best friend when they are suffering.

Practice #3: Take a Self-Compassion Break

So often we reflect on the things that we believe we should be doing better, or what we didn’t, or couldn’t do. Instead, make sure to take time out of your day to reflect on the things that you felt went well and the things that you appreciate about yourself. In the beginning this might be hard, so you can start with something like: “I am proud of myself for planting the seed of self-compassion.” With the right time and attention it will blossom and grow.

Practice #4: Quiet your Inner Critic

Like many of us, your inner critic is so common that it often times goes unrecognized. The next time you are feeling bad about something, think about what you’ve just said to yourself. Are your thoughts harsh, cold or angry? Once you recognize what these critical thoughts are, make an effort to soften them. Say something like: “Considering what I’ve been though it’s understandable that I would feel bad right now.” Remind yourself of how far you’ve come – not just how far you have to go.

None of this is easy, but with practice it’s possible to build up habits of being kind and understanding to ourselves, especially in tough moments. Many people find it helpful to embark on this journey in therapy with a professional as their guide. Over time, you and your therapist can build these habits into an ongoing approach and philosophy of self-compassion, which will likely lead to feeling better about yourself and living a more fulfilled life.

Image: Victoria Tsukanova on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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