How to practice self-compassion
Learn why self-compassion is worth practicing! You may question its value – “Isn’t self-compassion going to make me weak and lazy?” Such misconceptions will likely be roadblocks to practicing self-compassion so start by dispelling these notions. Self-compassion is proven to be important in bolstering mental wellbeing and strengthening resilience.
Furthermore, although compassion is usually associated with gentleness, empathy and understanding, there is more to it than this. Sometimes being compassionate may involve behaviours such as firmness and assertion. For example, if we see someone being bullied, compassion may motivate us to stand up for them - something that requires assertion and courage. Comforting someone who is distressed also requires the strength to tolerate their pain. Self-compassion similarly involves facing your fears, tolerating your own distressing feelings, and making courageous choices to act as the person you really want to be even when this is challenging.
Keep it simple. To start building a more compassionate attitude towards yourself, focus on one or two actions or practices that make sense to you – but commit to doing them regularly and frequently.
Practice noticing, naming and allowing your feelings. There are two psychologies of compassion. The first psychology of compassion is sensitivity to and awareness of distressing emotions; the second is the motivation to do something about it. Noticing, naming and allowing your feelings relates to the first psychology of compassion. Even if you can’t find a precise name or word to describe the feeling, you can just acknowledge it, for example by saying “Ouch!” or “That hurts”. Try to think of that feeling as a natural part of being human, that will rise and fall like a wave on it’s own if you allow it to. Notice where you feel it in your body and try to observe it, noticing where you are feeling it, describing the sensations as the intensity of the emotion changes. Imagine that the emotion is like a tornado and you are going to head straight on through it into the eye of the storm and observe it from that position, anchored and still as the turbulence rages around you. Focusing on your breathing can help to anchor you as you do this.
Understand that self-talk has similarities with our relationships in the external world (see my previous article here for more about this) and can be just as impactful as real-world relationships. Try to observe your inner critic’s voice – notice how it sounds, its tone of voice, its attitude. Use your imagination to picture how this part of you would look if it was a separate person. Maybe reflect on whose voice this reminds you of. This helps you take a step back, to be a little less “fused” with critical self-talk. You can then shift your focus onto speaking to yourself in a more encouraging and supportive way.
Practice compassionate self-talk. Try to imagine you are stepping into the role of a kind, strong, wise and understanding person – your “best self”. This compassionate side of you is someone who really gets you, someone who is on your side and is committed to supporting you. Imagine this compassionate part of you is speaking to a part of you that struggles with life, and with difficult thoughts and feelings. Adopt a kind, sincere and authentic tone of voice. Convey messages of support to the needy part of you – for example; “I care about you. I understand what you are going through. I get it. I really care about you. You matter. I’ll always be there for you”. Decide when you will practice this – perhaps first thing in the morning when you wake up; or on the way to work; or when you are having a shower. It’s a great idea to “habit tack” your compassionate self-talk to some other habit that you do daily. Even if self-compassionate self-talk seems strange and unnatural, just do it anyway. Think of the times when you’ve called yourself a name or criticised yourself – and consider why sending friendly, supportive messages to yourself is any less “natural”.
Take action - express your self-compassion through your behaviours. Think about the demands that life can place on you and the impact of this on your nervous system. The many “slings and arrows” -demands, challenges and, sometimes, hurts of daily life can leave you feeling frazzled. Understand that taking time to acknowledge the stress and to help your nervous system to calm and settle is truly an act of self-compassion. It may be tempting to choose quick fixes such as a glass of alcohol or a bar of chocolate. Try instead to introduce healthier strategies for calming and soothing your nervous system such as having a warm bath in candlelight, or listening to a calming breath meditation, or burning off nervous energy by walking or exercising.
Even very small gestures can have a positive impact. For example, giving your arm a gentle rub, touching your cheek with the palm of your hand, or holding a hand over your heart area can all convey an attitude of self-care.
Understand that you have a right to be treated humanely, and with respect and that you deserve compassion, unconditionally. Make a commitment to yourself that you will always support and encourage yourself, come what may.
Practice compassionately coaching yourself by writing compassionate messages to yourself. When your inner critic attacks you, puts you down, or belittles you, try writing down an alternative, more compassionate message. Write to your beaten down self as if it were another person. “It was really hard on you to be criticised like that again”. Write your message from the stance of your compassionate self. Focus on the “ouch” that your inner critic caused; convey understanding, validation, and care about the feelings; and send a message of commitment to be there for your struggling self. Include phrases like “I understand” “I notice” “I care” “I’m here for you” If you have some advice and words of wisdom and suggestions to give yourself about what to do next, that’s great! Just make sure you don’t leapfrog over the first part of compassion – noticing, acknowledging, validating and understanding the presence of difficult feelings.