What Is Self-Compassion And How Can You Practice It?

Updated November 15, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some people have no trouble being compassionate towards others but have a hard time showing compassion to themselves. This most often manifests as being overly judgmental or critical of one’s own shortcomings or imperfections. While these tendencies can be difficult to shake, working over time to replace them with kindness and patience can lead to a happier, less stressful life.

Being Kind To Yourself Isn’t Always Easy

What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion means offering yourself understanding, empathy, and warmth instead of judgment or harshness, especially when facing a failure or experiencing feelings of insufficiency or disappointment. Dr. Kristin Neff, an expert in the field of self-compassion, says that it’s made up of three main parts: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

  • Self-kindness is treating ourselves with the care we’d treat a good friend, as Dr. Neff puts it. It’s about being kind to ourselves especially in the moments when we feel unsuccessful or inadequate.
  • Common humanity is the recognition that everyone has moments when they feel unsuccessful or inadequate. This concept invites us to remember that even though these emotions may make us feel alone, many others feel them too from time to time.
  • Mindfulness involves examining thoughts and feelings as they come and go: not ignoring, repressing, or judging them, but acknowledging them and moving on.

The Potential Benefits Of Self-Compassion

There’s a growing body of research about the benefits of self-compassion. One study found a potential link between this quality and increased well-being, including higher levels of happiness, motivation, and optimism and lower levels of anxiety, depression, and fear of failure. In addition, an article in the Social and Personality Psychology Compass journal suggests that self-compassion may be a healthier characteristic to pursue than self-esteem because it involves less self-evaluation, ego-defensiveness, and self-enhancement. Self-esteem usually involves comparing yourself with others, while self-compassion is simply a kinder way of relating to your own self.

7 Ways To Practice Self-Compassion

It’s a skill like any other and can be built over time with practice and patience. Here are several strategies you can try to work on increasing levels of this quality in yourself.

1.   Cultivate An Awareness Of Your Thoughts

Reframing negative thoughts about ourselves is a key part of a self-compassion practice, but it can be difficult to do without first becoming aware of our thoughts in general. Noticing them is the first step toward being able to change them, like shifting negative self-talk into positive. Beginning a mindfulness practice is one powerful way to do this, and mindfulness meditation in particular can be an effective tool.

It can also be useful to become familiar with common cognitive distortions so you can start noticing how those may be affecting your thoughts and feelings. They’re simply thought patterns that present us with a warped view of a situation, and while they can affect anyone, they’re especially common in those with depression. For example, the distortion of polarization can cause you to think that you’re a complete failure if you get a low grade on a test or don’t get the job you interviewed for. This thought pattern leaves no room for outcomes in between great and terrible, and usually involves you harshly judging yourself for not being perfect. Meditation and therapy are two ways to become more in tune with your thoughts so you can notice and correct potentially harmful instances like these.

2.   Forgive Yourself

Everyone makes mistakes because we’re all imperfect. Plus, mistakes are often important learning experiences. However, there’s more than one way to respond when you slip up. The self-compassionate way would be to forgive yourself and move forward, taking with you anything you may have learned through the process.

One study found that self-compassion—specifically the components of self-kindness and mindfulness—correlates to forgiveness. Practicing all three elements of self-compassion may help you be able to forgive yourself and others more easily, and forgiveness may help boost self-compassion in turn, too. Once you initiate this cycle, you may be able to open the door to a host of positive, interconnected benefits.

3.   Follow Your Passions

One of the flawed patterns of thinking we may experience when we lack self-compassion is believing that because we’re imperfect and have made mistakes, we don’t deserve joy or happiness. Everyone deserves to experience these things, and you’re allowed to take steps to create these moments for yourself. Try exploring new hobbies or making time for ones you used to enjoy. Travel, meet new people, or otherwise incorporate things that make you feel excited and alive into your routine. Cultivating joy is indeed an act of self-compassion.

4.   Treat Yourself Like A Friend

Putting this tip from Dr. Neff into practice can be powerful. If a friend came to you upset because they made a mistake at work, didn’t get accepted into a program they applied to, or failed to kick an unhealthy habit, how would you respond? Most likely, you’d provide a kind, listening ear and some uplifting words of encouragement. You’d never berate them or tell them they were a failure, because you understand that mistakes are a part of life and that making someone feel worse about theirs isn’t helpful. You deserve the same type of understanding kindness when you fall short in your own life.

5.   Nourish Your Mind And Body

Taking good care of yourself is a way to practice self-compassion. By filling your mind and body with positive substances like nutritious food and uplifting, encouraging words, you’ll have the fuel you need to make more positive, loving choices for yourself. Likewise, avoiding unhealthy habits and toxic people can also contribute to this goal of nourishment. Just remember to show yourself compassion when you fail to do this perfectly, as we all inevitably will. As with every tip on this list, the aim is to practice and enjoy the benefits that brings—perfection not required.

Being Kind To Yourself Isn’t Always Easy

6.   Practice Supportive Touch

By providing yourself with kind physical touch, you can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the one responsible for helping your body feel relaxed and safe after experiencing stress or danger. Think of how a parent or caregiver might put their arms around a child who wakes up from a bad dream: There’s power in compassionate, soothing touch. One study even found that patients who experienced supportive touch before surgery had lower anxiety going into the procedure.

You might practice supportive touch by placing one or both hands over your chest as you take deep breaths. You could also try gently stroking your arms or cradling your cheek with one hand. There are many different options, so experimenting with different soothing touches and seeing how they make you feel may be helpful.

7.   Work With A Therapist

Therapy can be a powerful tool in cultivating self-compassion. A trained therapist can help you develop a greater awareness of any of your harsh, judgmental thoughts and reactions to your own experiences or behaviors. They can also equip you with strategies for shifting your thought patterns toward mindfulness and kindness.

One study suggests that mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy in particular may help increase an individual’s level of self-compassion.

For those who feel more comfortable receiving this type of support from home, virtual therapy is an option. A platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone call, video call, and/or chat. Research suggests that online therapy is an effective alternative to in-person sessions, and it’s more accessible and affordable for many people as well.

Takeaway

Practicing self-compassion can have powerful benefits for your mental health and your life overall. While it typically takes time to shift deeply ingrained patterns of how you relate to yourself, it’s possible to develop this quality over time. With some patience, dedication, and the tips on this list, you may be able to make significant progress.

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