For a long time, I rolled my eyes at the idea of self-compassion. Being kind to myself? In this economy? Ludicrous.
How would I ever motivate myself to change or succeed without shaming and berating myself for my failures? I also secretly envied people who looked like they loved themselves, believing I simply wasn’t built that way.
Self-compassion has become popular in online mental health rhetoric, but some still have a misguided understanding of what it means. A helpful definition of the concept is “a healthy way of being with yourself during suffering, whether caused by failure or general life difficulties”.
Self-compassion does not involve ignoring or lying to oneself about our inherent limitations and imperfections. It simply means giving acceptance, kindness, and support to ourselves, even when we like ourselves the least.
Others define self-compassion as treating yourself with the same care you would a dear friend who is struggling, regardless of whether the suffering appears to be self-inflicted.
Can self-compassion make you happier?
In its simplest and most reductive terms, self-compassion is about not being such a jerk to yourself. For many, this feels unappealing or unhelpful, especially when you feel like you have somehow failed yourself or others.
Perhaps on some level, you feel you don’t deserve compassion or kindness unless you do the ‘right thing’ or are successful in your endeavours.
But the benefits of self-compassion are numerous, and may surprise you. Research has found that humans are most motivated to learn and improve when they have kind and supportive self-talk after making mistakes. Some studies even suggest that people with higher self-compassion experience better physical health and wellbeing.
Conversely, shame and negative self-talk block the part of our brain that can learn and make better choices in response to challenges.
Recall a time you felt empowered to learn or improve, either at school, work, or in your personal life. Was your teacher or guide yelling at you, calling you names, and ridiculing your efforts? Or were they kind and patient and highlighted what you did well while showing you how to improve in other areas?
If self-compassion for self-compassion’s sake feels indulgent or pointless, remember that it could be your self-development and success superpower. We learn best when we feel safe to explore and make mistakes.
When we feel threatened or bullied, even by our own internal dialogue, the part of our brain that rewires and improves old patterns goes offline to preserve energy for the imagined oncoming predator or threat.
Self-compassion can also benefit our relationships with others. Chances are, if you constantly chastise yourself, you also struggle with patience and understanding when others disappoint you.
When I fully committed to being gentler to myself, especially when I fell short, I unlocked a new level of empathy and love for others, even when I disagreed or disliked what they said or did.
Remember, self-compassion doesn’t mean you approve of what has happened, it simply means accepting the reality of your situation and focusing on what is within your control now.
How can you practise self-compassion?
When you are distressed, it may not be facts of the situation that upset you. Rather, it’s the story you tell yourself about what is happening.
For example, if a friend cancels on you last minute, the fact is that your plans to meet are no longer going ahead.
On its own, this fact is not particularly threatening or disturbing. However, if we allow ourselves to start telling stories about what it means, like the friend hates us or doesn’t value the friendship, we can quickly get dysregulated and overwhelmed with negative self-talk.
More extreme forms of self-compassion may feel false and insincere in these moments. Telling yourself “it’s fine, it doesn’t matter” may not work because it doesn’t feel fine, and your feelings do matter.
When used to minimise or dismiss the negative aspects of our situation, self-compassion can easily stray into toxic positivity or feed further into a shame spiral because we believe we ‘shouldn’t’ feel upset.
Psychotherapist Sarah Dosanghe works with clients who struggle with body image and eating disorders. For her clients, self-compassion is often a huge leap from the place of self-hatred and shame they come to her from.
In her podcast, she describes a strategy of asking, “What is the kindest interpretation of this moment that still feels true?”
She explains that positive affirmations can be unhelpful if we don’t believe them on an emotional and visceral level, so starting small is paramount.
For example, if we see a photo of ourselves and dislike what we see, we may have an unkind narrative about what our body image means about us.
At that moment, saying “it’s okay, I love and accept my body” might be too much of a stretch. Self-compassion doesn’t have to be sweet and cuddly, it can just be kinder than our usual self-beratement.
Self-compassion might sound like this: “I’ve seen a photo of myself, and I notice I feel unhappy with my appearance. I choose to still care for myself the best I can.”
This process of noticing and naming your emotional response works in two ways. First, you start to practise a gentler language with yourself. Second, you create some distance between yourself and the thoughts or emotions that arise, allowing you to question whether they are true.
This space allows a conscious choice in how to respond, so you can wait until you are less emotionally heightened before you make any drastic decisions.
You will also realise that thoughts come and go unless you ignore them or try to fight them off. What we resist persists, and through surrendering to the ups and downs of life, we can find contentment and peace.
Avoiding common self-compassion pitfalls
If self-compassion is new or unfamiliar, expect some initial discomfort and internal resistance.
Remember that self-compassion is not the same as self-pity or wallowing in negative emotions. It’s about taking responsibility, or response-ability, meaning your ability to respond to that within your circle of influence.
Whatever mistakes you have made in the past are done, and dwelling on them will only drain you of motivation and belief that you can do better. Avoid comparing yourself to others, and remember that everyone is on their own journey.
A common challenge when practising self-compassion is expecting a miraculous change overnight or trying to do it perfectly. Perfectionism is a barrier to self-compassion, as it creates unrealistic expectations.
Any major change will take time, consistent practice, and accepting failures and setbacks as part of the process. Stick with it and do your best; eventually, subtle signs will appear that your practice is taking effect.
Perhaps when you receive criticism at work, you see it as a learning opportunity rather than a personal attack. Perhaps you feel less impatient and frustrated with other drivers when stuck in traffic. Eventually, you should start to notice larger shifts, like approaching your flaws and setbacks with humour, curiosity, and a desire to learn from the experience.
Practising self-compassion in a world that expects perfection from women can be difficult. But it is essential for our mental health.
When we learn to be kind to ourselves, we can better cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. We are also more likely to set boundaries, care for our physical and emotional needs, and achieve our goals.