Nurturing Yourself through Self-Compassion

| Megan Davis LCSW

Take a moment to think about a recent failure, mistake, or decision that did not turn out like you had expected. 

Next, see if you can replay the internal dialogue that took place as a result in your mind’s eye and write down what you told yourself. 

Finally, imagine yourself saying what you wrote down to a loved one in a similar situation.

What did you notice?

If the later part of the exercise above is truly what you might say to a loved one, you likely have a pretty good grasp of self-compassion.  If instead, you felt awful and mean imagining yourself telling your loved one what you wrote, i.e. “You’re an idiot.” or “You can’t do anything right.”, chances are it is difficult for you to give yourself a break.  

What is self-compassion?

A way we can define self-compassion is a gentle way of interacting with oneself, imperfections and all, that displays warmth and unconditional self-worth. Self-compassion has been broken down by researcher, Dr. Kristen Neff, into three aspects: kindness, common humility, and mindfulness.  Think of how a loving parent or caregiver may comfort a child who is sad or hurt- it is that kindness and tenderness that we can also learn to provide ourselves. It allows space for acknowledgement that imperfections are part of a larger human experience, rather than an isolated incident. Additionally, self-compassion is rooted in mindfulness, which allows us to take a non-judgmental way of observing our experience.

There are many misconceptions about self-compassion that make it quite scary for many people. When I bring up self-compassion in sessions, clients often associate it with being conceited, self-indulgent, self-pitying, or fear they will lose motivation to achieve unless they criticize themselves.  However, what we are learning through research on shame, motivation, and psychological well-being is that being self-critical and tying self-worth to others’ appraisal of ourselves actually becomes counterproductive and increases feelings of failure, worthlessness, and decreases motivation. 

So why is it important to develop self-compassion?

Self-compassion and the concept of unconditional worth support our ability to be resilient during difficult times as well as lower anxiety, fear of failure, depression, and increased vitality.  When we are able to practice self-compassion, it also allows us to connect with others in relationships that are healthy and balanced. If someone sets unrealistic expectations for oneself and accepts nothing less, it can also make it difficult to afford others compassion for not meeting expectations those relationships.  Additionally, if someone is self-critical and unkind to oneself, they will likely have a higher threshold for abuse and harsh criticism from others, leading to unhealthy relationships.  

While society places significant emphasis on building self-esteem, research is showing that cultivating self-compassion has longer-term psychological benefits.  The reasoning behind this is that self-esteem develops when we (or others) make a positive judgement towards ourselves, our accomplishments, etc. This creates external reliance on others or our abilities to do something that makes us feel good about ourselves.  If we rely on increasing self-esteem too heavily, it is likely going to be a roller-coaster ride. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is non-judgmental and accepting. We don’t have to like our flaws or misgivings, but through self-compassion, we can develop the wisdom that our own value and worth as a person remains unchanged regardless of external factors.

3 Ways to Start Nurturing Your Self-Compassion

  1. Engage in mindfulness practice.  Through practicing mindfulness, it will become easier to bring awareness to and detach from judgmental thoughts.
  2. Next time you make a mistake or notice a flaw, talk to yourself like you are talking to a small child, friend, or beloved pet.  There is a big difference between “Gosh, you’re an idiot” and “Gosh, that was really disappointing and embarrassing. Many people have feelings like this at some point, how can you learn from this?”
  3. Keep in mind you are not alone. Everyone has made a mistake. Everyone has screwed up at some point in their life.  You are not defective. Mistakes and shortcomings are a part of human existence. See what it is like to give yourself permission to be human and imperfect.

A wonderful aspect of self-compassion is that it is a skill that can be developed through practice over time.  Set an intention to practice some of these ways of nurturing self-compassion. Many people find it is beneficial to work with a professional to build mindful awareness of thoughts and feelings as well as participate in an empathetic, compassionate therapeutic relationship that can support integration of compassion to oneself.

Today's the day to make a change.