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  • Katie Lawliss

Practicing Self Compassion

Updated: Jun 18

A hand golding a card that says "love yourself"

Dr. Kristin Neff first defined the term “self-compassion” as it is used today. Self-compassion is just how

it sounds, experiencing and directing compassion toward yourself. Most of us tend to be harshly critical of ourselves in a way that we would not be towards others. self-compassion is how people emotionally respond to suffering, how they cognitively understand their situation, and how they pay attention to the suffering (Neff, 2016).


When making a harsh judgment of yourself, a common question a therapist may ask you is “Would you say this about a friend?”. I also find it powerful to ask “How would you feel if I was the one to say that about you?”. Imagine a person walking down the street passing you and saying “ You don’t do anything right and you are useless”. You would probably be shocked that someone would say that to you. However, we don’t feel shocked when we say it to ourselves. 


When negative self-criticism is in our voice in our head, it can sound very believable compared to what it would sound like coming from a stranger’s mouth on the street. So I ask clients (and you) to consider what it would be like to hear a stranger criticize you the way you criticize yourself. We have become so used to negative self-talk that we fail to see the harshness of it. While we may be used to this inner critical voice and not notice it often, it greatly impacts our emotional wellbeing. 


Self-compassion is a way to be kind and understanding to yourself. Self-compassion is different from self-esteem in the sense that self-compassion is a way of relating to yourself rather than an evaluation of yourself. While self-compassion can help self-esteem in the long run, you can practice self-compassion no matter your self-esteem. 


How to practice self compassion

One way to practice self-compassion is by considering what an unconditionally loving and wise friend, imaginary or not, would say to you about your perceived inadequacies and struggles. After considering this, see if you can say those words to yourself. 


For example, this friend might say “I see how much you go through every day and I see the energy you put forth. Even when you lose your temper, I know you are trying. I love you even when you express anger and I notice how you are working to express anger differently. I believe in you and know you will continue to work on this” after you tell them how you yelled at your significant other earlier that day or became impatient with your child before school. Now imagine what it would be like to say this to yourself. 

Some people worry that practicing self-compassion means they will not hold themselves accountable for their actions and wrongdoings. However, self-compassion and accountability can go hand in hand. True accountability means willingness to do something differently in the future. 


Why is self compassion important?

Practicing self-compassion can lead to more willingness and ability to make actionable changes in the future because harsh, negative self-talk often inhibits our ability to change by taking away energy from the behavior that needs to change and using it on putting ourselves down. When we practice self-compassion, we are allowing ourselves to feel capable of making an ongoing change and reserving the energy for that actionable change, rather than using that energy on self-ridicule. 


For instance, in the example above, perhaps after yelling at your spouse, you typically beat yourself up and think of all the ways you make their life harder. Consider what it would be like if you said, “I see how much you go through every day and I see the energy you put forth. Even when you lose your temper, I know you are trying. I love you even when you express anger and I notice how you are working to express anger differently. I believe in you and know you will continue to work on this.” Would you be more likely to be able to communicate and apologize for yelling? Would you feel more motivated to keep working on how you express your anger and impatience?  I think you would be. 


Self compassion as a way to look at the whole picture

Self-compassion can also look like considering the context for your behavior. Oftentimes, when someone has a chronic illness, they may find it hard to keep up with treatments. Let's say you have not taken your medication in a few days or have not been checking your blood sugars as often as you should be. Self-compassion may look like, "It can be really hard to manage my chronic illness. Sometimes I am just so sick of it and that is understandable because being sick and managing my health is a full-time job. It doesn't mean I am bad". That practice of self-compassion does not mean you are encouraging yourself to not take your medication at all or giving excuses, but beating yourself up over missing some doses or not monitoring the way you technically should, often leads to more avoidance of care and decreases in feeling capable of managing your health. It is okay to grant yourself some kindness through acknowledging the challenge of managing your health.


As you practice saying these things to yourself, focus on the feelings of comfort and soothing that arise. Sometimes, you may experience sadness or longing to hear this from others at the same time. You can practice compassion about that experience as well by saying something like, “I know you wish someone else was giving you this compassion. You inherently deserve this support no matter where it comes from”. As you practice this more and you are mindful of all the experiences you have in life, you will notice many chances to practice self-compassion.


The fact is you deserve to be cared for, encouraged, and supported. Self-compassion is the practice that allows you to do this for yourself. 


If you are interested in learning more about self-compassion, please visit Dr. Kristin Neff’s website at https://self-compassion.org/ or contact me to begin therapy, I can help you learn to be more compassionate to yourself and we can see how that helps you grow.


References:

Neff KD (2016) The Self-Compassion Scale is a valid and theoretically coherent measure of self-compassion. Mindfulness 7(1):264–74


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