Why practice self-compassion? Also, what is that?

May 5, 2022

Making mistakes and encountering roadblocks are normal parts of life. But how we react to those can make a big difference in our wellbeing.

What is your attitude towards yourself when encountering a roadblock? Are you disapproving and judgmental about you flaws and inadequacies? When times are really difficult, do you tend to be tough on yourself?

When talking to a friend, or someone close to you and they’re telling you about their challenges, do you take the same approach as you would if the protagonist of the situation were you? You’ll probably act with compassion and kindness.

So why is it much more difficult to show compassion towards ourselves?

We’re our own toughest critics. We see self-criticism as a common form of motivation, and in that sense, self-compassion might seem a bit counter intuitive when working towards reaching our goals.

But let’s make a mirrored comparison between the effects of compassion vs criticism in relation to setting and achieving goals.

Compassion vs criticism

Researcher Dr. Kelly McGonigal at Stamford University has found that self-criticism is actually far more destructive than it is helpful. In one set of studies that followed hundreds of people trying to meet a wide range of goals – from losing weight to pursuing academic goals– the researchers found that the more people criticised themselves, the slower their progress over time and the less likely they were to achieve their goal.

In comparison, studies show that self-compassion has positive effects when it comes to making and maintaining interpersonal relationships and rebuilding body image. It is also associated with intrinsic motivation, with goals based on mastery rather than performance, and with less fear of academic failure.

Now that we know some of the benefits of turning to the kinder side, let’s take a look at what self-compassion is, and break some of the flawed beliefs about it.

What is self-compassion really?

It is deliberately treating yourself with kindness when stressed or upset (or when you make a mistake). Self-compassion means treating yourself with kindness and understanding when encountering a setback, instead of judging and critiquing. It’s understanding that perfection is not a concept we can fully grasp at any time, and hence, there’s no need to be perfect! Self-compassion is embracing our imperfections.

The only difference between self-compassion and compassion for others is the target. Outside of that, pillars and practices are the same. So, let’s go through the main elements of compassion:

Strauss and colleagues concluded that compassion has five elements:

  1. recognising suffering,
  2. understanding the universality of suffering in human experience,
  3. feeling for the person suffering and emotionally connecting with their distress,
  4. tolerating any uncomfortable feelings (e.g., fear, disgust, distress, anger) so that we remain accepting and open to the person in their suffering, and
  5. acting or being motivated to act to alleviate suffering.

Have a think about when was the last time you approached one of your own issues and touched upon any of the elements above. Some of us might have a hard time remembering the last time we were compassionate towards ourselves!

There are some common misconceptions around self-compassion so let’s break those down.

What self-compassion is not?

Self-compassion is not self-pity. When we feel self-pity, we focus only on our problems and we stop considering that others might be going through a similar thing. Self-pity also emphasises egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerates the extent of personal suffering. In contrast, self-compassion gives a more balanced perspective of one’s experience in relation to the experiences of others, and gives us a sense of connectedness.

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. There’s seems to be a popular fear that if we are self-compassionate, we will ultimately make excuses to get away with anything. Self-compassion is a practice that’s meant to work towards the ultimate goal of being healthy and happy, it’s not about temporary pleasure. Self-indulgence can look more like engaging in harmful practices while only focusing on short-term reward (e.g. eating unhealthily, drinking excessively, not putting enough effort to reach a goal or procrastinating).

Self-compassion is not self-esteem. The confusion between self-esteem and self-compassion is to no extent more accurate than the above beliefs. On one hand, self-esteem is a sense of self-worthiness, the perception of our own value, and how much we like ourselves. All of these are based on self-evaluations. On the other hand, self-compassion has nothing to do with self-evaluations. We are all capable and deserving of self-compassion irrespective of any personality characteristics or badges of honour.

How to train self-compassion?

Being self-compassionate is not a habit that’s easily implemented, and it’s definitely not a natural instinct for most of us. So how can we get better at it?

As with any other habit, awareness is the first step. So, if you’re still reading this, you already got further than a lot of people!

From here on, remember to take baby steps, but often enough to make a difference in the long-run.

Let’s take a look at a few self-compassion exercises.

  1. Remind yourself of who you are

It’s sometimes difficult to practice compassion when you look past the person you’re compassionate for. This practice is meant to help you tap back in with yourself.

How to do it:

Start your self-compassion journey by taking 5 minutes to write about yourself as if you were writing about someone else. Reflect on your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, the challenges you overcame and the ones you’re still struggling with. Describe this person. Then take a few minutes to reflect on what you wrote.

  1. Compassion Break

Think of an aspect of your life where you tend to struggle, where you might feel less adequate, and the self-critic gets triggered easily.Allow yourself to feel the pain of the moment, the struggle, the distress.Now follow the steps bellow:

  1. Be present in validating the pain- saying to yourself ‘it’s really hard to feel like this’
  2. Remind yourself of your humanity (e.g., it’s part of being human, there’s nothing wrong with me feeling this way)
  3. Allow yourself to feel connected to others in your own imperfection
  4. Bring in some kindness: Sensitive touch (e.g., touching your heart, hugging yourself) and bringing out some kind words. Think about something you need to hear (e.g., it’s ok to be imperfect, this situation is still a bit out of control but I’m working on it)

3. Compassionate imagery

You can imagine a compassionate being who wants to ease your suffering. The being is wise and warm and has a deep commitment to you and accepts you with kindness in a non-judgemental way

Examples

  • Buddha
  • The sun
  • A large fluffy smiling cat
  • A being of white light that you have invented

Picture them being with you and having these wishes for you...

  • That you be well
  • That you be happy
  • That you are free from suffering
  1. Compassionate letter writing

Write a letter to yourself from a compassionate point of view, express warmth, kindness and understanding to yourself, write about your past or the present (or both) in a kind and non-judgemental way.

And lastly, but possibly most importantly, don’t forget to love yourself in the purest way. Care for yourself as often as you get the chance to. To get some inspiration, listen to We’re all light by XTC, The lemonade song by Pink Martini, Everybody is free (to wear sunscreen) by Quindon Tarver, or any other inspiring tool you might find useful when working towards happiness.

And don’t forget, you are not alone!

Remember that it’s okay to ask for help from people around you. Do you have a good friend that you can rely on? Tell them that you’re planning to embark on a new compassionate journey and ask them to be supportive of it.

And sometimes, self-help techniques are not enough to get us through. If you feel like your struggle is too hard to handle on your own, or with the help of your loved ones, don’t hesitate in  seeking professional help. Doctors can make referrals to qualified specialists that can walk you through this journey. And if you already took this step but are on waiting lists, digital health apps like Holly Health can provide immediate support for while you wait (and beyond!).

Written by Adela Bodasca. Adela studied psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and has a special interest in holistic and compassionate approaches to psychology. Check out her website to find more emotion regulation techniques.

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