How to Cultivate Self-Compassion
By: Natalie Rice-Thorp, Ph.D. | September 16, 2022
Experiences such as loss, pain, and disappointment are unavoidable parts of being human. If we want to feel the good stuff in life such as love, connection, and proud moments, then we must also accept the risk of the flip side of these experiences. For example, if you love someone, you are vulnerable to feeling the loss of them. If you feel connection, you are vulnerable to feeling disconnected. Unfortunately, knowing that the not-so-good stuff is part of the human experience doesn’t make the pain any less. So, what can we do to help ourselves when we are hurting?
Although we cannot make the pain go away, we can ease our suffering by ridding ourselves of the layers of critical judgments we place on our own selves. Tara Brach, Ph.D., author of Radical Acceptance and Radical Compassion, refers to these self-judgments as the “second arrow.” This means that when we judge ourselves negatively for feeling bad, we add a second arrow of pain, and our suffering, therefore, becomes greater. Bringing self-compassion into the picture offers protection from that second arrow of suffering. In fact, research shows that self-compassion has many benefits to our mental health.
What is Self-Compassion?
Simply put, self-compassion is the same type of compassion that you have for someone else, only directed inward. Self-compassion involves having compassion for and accepting our own suffering. Extending kindness to ourselves – especially when we are hurting – is not denial or in any way self-indulgent. And acceptance does not imply agreement or endorsement. Rather, self-compassion is the acknowledgment of “what is.” We can be compassionate with ourselves by being mindfully aware of the pain we feel, accepting it, and being kind to ourselves through it. Self-compassion says: “Be kind to yourself when you suffer.”
When we struggle, we give ourselves compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad.
Strategies to Cultivate Self-Compassion:
1. Remember, you are not magical
It is probably safe to say that you do not possess magical powers that make all your thoughts true. You aren’t that special. You can spend the next ten hours thinking “a glittering unicorn is going to walk into this room and call me by name,” and we can laugh and realize this would be ridiculous to believe. Ask yourself, “why is it then that it feels so real for other thoughts?” Thoughts such as “I’m a failure” and “I’m not enough” might feel real, but they are not true. Thoughts are just thoughts and not necessarily facts.
2. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking
When we feel overwhelmed, our brains are more likely to take shortcuts. This can be a helpful way to conserve resources much like your computer shifting to power-saving mode. Unfortunately, in the case of humans, cognitive shortcuts can result in decreased accuracy. Thoughts like “I’m a failure” are quick, general thoughts that do not take a lot of effort to generate. You can challenge these thoughts by considering the longer alternative, referred to as cognitive flexibility. Ask yourself “What is an alternative explanation?” and “Am I telling myself the whole story?” For example, a more accurate thought could be “I received a lower mark on an evaluation than I wanted, and I’m feeling disappointed and discouraged.” This thought is not only more specific and accurate, but it also has the bonus of not damaging your self-worth.
3. Talk to your younger self/loved one/best friend
When you find yourself thinking critical thoughts about yourself, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to your friend, your four-year-old self, or a loved one. Would you tell your dear friend “Your thighs are so fat and ugly.” Would you call your four-year-old self a complete “failure” for not meeting certain expectations? Would you tell your little niece that she should “Just be grateful and stop crying like a weak baby.” Ask yourself why the rules are different for thoughts about yourself. I imagine you are an awesome person, but again, you aren’t that special that you require different rules than literally everyone else.
It is no easy task to manage the painful parts of life and all of the thoughts and feelings that come with them. With practice it’s possible to cultivate kindness and compassion towards ourselves to help in the difficult times. Many people find it helpful to embark on this journey in therapy with a professional San Diego Psychologist as their guide. You and your therapist can build these habits into an ongoing approach of self-compassion, which will likely lead to feeling better about yourself and living a more fulfilled life.