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When faced with a stressful situation, we might blame ourselves or judge ourselves negatively. While listening to another person talking about the same stressful situations, we are likely to show more caring and kindness. Why is it so hard to offer the same kindness to ourselves that we so easily offer to others?

I have asked this question often. Offering ourselves compassion may be regarded by others as selfish. It also seems difficult to overcome our own self-criticism. The danger of self-criticism is that it is an attack on the self, the same self it’s trying to motivate toward wellness and happiness. Over time, self-criticism can internalize the sense that we aren’t good enough as we are. Consider what might happen when offering kind words and self-compassion to ourselves.

Self-compassion is the act of recognizing our own humanity. It is accepting ourselves at the present moment. Self-compassion shows warmth and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. Psychologist, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., operationally defined and measured the construct in several research studies. With colleague, Chris Germer, Ph.D., Neff developed an eight-week program called Mindful Self-Compassion, which teaches self-compassion skills in daily life. While anyone can learn self-compassion skills, such skills are difficult to practice when we set high expectations, perfectionist ideals for ourselves, or the constant message that we should be doing more. Practicing self-compassion is an active process involving both mind and body and can be learned.

Here are some ways to include self-compassion into our everyday lives:

Recognize Self-Talk

When stressed, we amplify the thoughts in our head, and we do that very quickly. We may call ourselves names, blame ourselves for doing something wrong, or believe ourselves not good enough. It can be scary to identify what these internal voices are saying, but this is a significant first step in practicing self-compassion. Try writing down the self-talk in a journal.


Once we have recognized the self-talk, we do not change or reframe it. We look at the self-talk and think about what we would say to a good friend, such as offering kind words of warmth and caring to comfort them. Then, we channel these words of love toward ourselves while taking the time to write or say these affirmations aloud. Repeat them. Give time for them to sink in. If it is hard to accept affirmations, curiously explore what it might be like to believe one. Remember that patience is key when using affirmations.

Mindfulness Meditations

Part of the practice of self-compassion is grounding ourselves, meaning the act of bringing your awareness into the present moment. One way to bring awareness into the present moment is to meditate. While meditation can be practiced in many ways, one good way is to sit comfortably with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing. If you would like more structure to your meditations, the Center of Mindfulness at UCSD has guided meditations.

Research studies show that self-compassion links to less anxiety and depression, to better life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing. The next time you find yourself in a stressful moment, remember to calm and comfort yourself, like a good friend would do for you. Just as the heart needs to pump blood to the heart before it can nourish the body, the journey towards finding balance in your life of giving compassion, begins with self-compassion.


Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

By Mary Oliver from Dream Work


Image: liz west on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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