Most of us know that we should be kind to ourselves, and yet it can be quite difficult to do so. For one reason or another, many of us struggle to care for ourselves with the same compassion we would offer to someone we love. For this reason, self-compassion exercises are crucial. They can help to enhance the relationship we have with our innermost self while also alleviating the weight of many all-too-common human struggles. For example, studies have found that high levels of self-compassion are linked with reduced psychological stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.
But what is self-compassion anyways and what does it look like in practice? To answer these questions and more, this comprehensive guide to self-compassion will explore:
“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day.
A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”
What Is Self-Compassion?
There are many different definitions of self-compassion. However, what it tends to boil down to is the following explanation put forth by Kristin Neff:
“Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
For example, if we are going through a separation or are struggling to achieve some type of goal, self-compassion would invite us to turn inwardly with warmth and kindness. Rather than belittling ourselves, casting blame or judgment, or avoiding the subject matter all-together, we would acknowledge our suffering (however large or small) and support ourselves through it.
For many people, self-compassion is in contradiction to much of the messaging we received when we grew up (either from people around us or from society at large). We often tend to our suffering with harshness, criticism, or coldness, so self-compassion is quite the opposite. While it can take time to fully embody self-compassion as a way of being, we can practice it in any moment when we find ourselves struggling with something.
Common Myths About Self-Compassion
To better understand what self-compassion is, it can be helpful to explore what it isn’t. There are many different myths about self-compassion that can lead to misunderstandings about what it really entails.
Three core misunderstandings that some people have about self-compassion are:
Self-compassion is self-pity.
Many people associate self-compassion with self-pity; however, to care for ourselves with compassion does not mean that we ruminate on our misfortunes. Though compassion and pity are related, they are not the same. Compassion can help us to embrace and move through our challenges whereas pity carries a different energy, one that is not necessarily supportive of resilience.
Self-compassion is self-centered.
Another common myth is that self-compassion is self-centered or selfish. While self-compassion indeed requires us to turn inwards, it does not equate to a lack of concern for the world around us. It does not make us more important than others; in fact, when we are compassionate with ourselves, we are more likely to be compassionate with others.
Self-compassion will hinder my growth.
Furthermore, some people believe that to take pause for self-compassion will make one complacent to personal growth. For example, one might wonder: Will self-compassion make me indulge more frequently in unhealthy foods? Will it give me an excuse for poor behaviour? These questions and concerns are understandable, but true self-compassion brings us into greater alignment with our most genuine needs. It helps to quiet the inner critic, which leaves more room for our inner strength and wisdom to shine through.
Listen to Chris Germer Discuss the Myths of Self-Compassion.
What Are The Three Components of Self-Compassion?
Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, outlines three core elements of self-compassion.
These are understood as follows:
Take a moment to ground yourself.
The first step for practicing self-compassion is to simply ground into the present moment. This helps to set the stage for mindful awareness of your challenges. Note where you are by feeling into the earth beneath you and then by witnessing a few breaths moving through your body. Set all mental stories aside for a moment.
Acknowledge that you are suffering.
Next, recognize the fact that you are suffering. Whatever you are going through, note the difficulty of this experience. You do not need to deny it nor latch onto the stories that this suffering tells. You do not need to compare it to another person’s suffering; simply recognize it as the suffering that it is. Simply note:
I am struggling right now.
This experience is difficult for me.
I am having a hard time with this.
Mindfulness at this stage will help you to remain aware of your current challenges without becoming swept away by them. Stick with straightforward statements of recognition without going into explanations, blaming, or any other stories your mind might weave.
Recognize that you are not alone in your suffering
Next, note that whatever you are experiencing is a part of being human. Though the experience likely feels very personal to you now, there are many others struggling with the same feelings that you are. This can help you to overcome any thoughts that might suggest there is something abnormal about your experience. Suffering is entirely human and entirely normal.
Consider the compassion you would offer to someone you love.
Think about someone you love and imagine that they were experiencing what you are now. How would you treat them? What words of support would you offer? What would your body language or overall energy be like? Note what compassion would look like in this situation if you were tending to the struggles of someone you care about dearly.
Offer yourself that same loving kindness.
Finally, direct the compassion you envisioned in the last step towards yourself. What words might you need to hear right now? How might you shift your posture in order to be more embracing of yourself? Is there any healing touch you can offer to yourself, such as a hand on the heart?
Consider the following self-compassion statements to enhance your practice. Silently repeat to yourself any statement that feels genuinely nourishing for you:
I am here for you.
I am supporting you.
I see you.
May I be kind to myself.
May I accept myself.
I love you.
I forgive you.
8 Self-Compassion Exercises
If you are struggling with self-compassion, you do not need to harness this skill on your own. There are many resources to facilitate your ability to tend to yourself with greater love, care, and kindness. Explore the following self-compassion exercises as you feel called to:
This meditation for self-compassion is a guided, in-depth version of the practice outlined above. Chris Germer leads this soothing practice, which is broken down into three parts: mindful awareness, remembering we are not alone, and offering kindness.
This mindfulness worksheet is a journal exercise that invites you to write a letter of care and kindness to yourself – from the point of view of someone who loves you. This exercise can help us tune into our innate capacity for self-compassion.
Another great resource for harnessing self-compassion is this talk by Tara Brach. In this talk, Brach helps us to better understand what it means to self-love. She highlights how and why we often get locked into anxiety, mistrust, and conditioned reactivity.
This guided meditation for self-compassion is a practice for working with strong emotions. It invites us to locate the emotion we are experiencing within the physical body and to soften it around its edges. This practice invites us to acknowledge the difficulty of our emotions and to tend to ourselves with compassion.
Another meditation for self-compassion by Kristin Neff, this practice focuses on the mindfulness technique of body scanning. It reminds us to be gentle and tender towards ourselves as we explore whatever is present for us in this moment. It invites us to embrace the fullness of our humanity.
This worksheet outlines how to take a simple self-compassion break. For this practice, you are invited to first read through the instructions and then work through them on your own. At the end of your self-guided meditation, write down how it felt to practice, along with any ideas about how you can incorporate this exercise into your daily life.
A variant on the traditional loving-kindness practice, this meditation is tailored to focus specifically on self-compassion. It invites us to repeat the following set of self-compassion statements:
May I be safe.
May I be peaceful.
May I be kind to myself.
May I accept myself as I am.
Lastly, one final meditation for self-compassion that you might consider is this short guided practice led by Sean Fargo. It invites us to call a challenging situation to mind, to acknowledge it, and to offer ourselves loving statements in the face of our difficulties.
By practicing self-compassion, we begin to develop a more harmonious relationship with ourselves. Having self-compassion does not mean that we will never face challenges; it simply means that we are kind and tender towards ourselves as we navigate the difficulties of being human. After all, we all face difficulties as we navigate this ever-changing life experience. Self-compassion exercises help us to love ourselves throughout the journey.