Are you struggling with negative thoughts, self-doubt, or a general sense of not being good enough? You are not alone. Below you'll find common myths about self-compassion as well as practical and evidence-based tips to improve your practice.
"Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others." - Christopher Germer
Research has found that self-compassion is essential and necessary for our health. People who regularly practice self-compassion tend to be happier, healthier, less anxious and depressed. In fact, practicing self-compassion can lead us to feel more satisfied with our lives and helps build resilience, which improves our ability to handle crises.
Sounds simple, right?
Regular practice of self-compassion may be easier said than done, particularly when being kind to yourself is unfamiliar. Like most things that are unfamiliar, it could require a learning curve that means an investment of your time and effort until it becomes automatic.
In fact, as a therapist I often struggle with my own inner-critic when working with clients. My inner dialogue might sound something like, "You really screwed up that exercise," or "You shouldn't have said it like that," or even "You're a terrible therapist. You should look for another career."
Similar to my clients, my default reaction is to push these thoughts away. I try to ignore them and pretend they don't exist; this behaviour pattern tends to perpetuate the negative cycle until it becomes so ingrained that I might not realize I'm being too hard on myself. Negative self-talk might start to present itself in the form of symptoms, such as demotivation, persistent feelings of dread and self-doubt, insecurity, urges to avoid, and low mood and energy.
The truth is that learning to practice self-compassion takes time and effort for all of us. It's ongoing, but it does get easier with practice.
What does self-compassion practice look like?
Before learning ways we can be loving toward ourselves, it's probably worth noting what self-compassion is not.
Myths About Self-Compassion
Myth 1: Self-compassion is self-pity.
Self-compassion is not the same as feeling sorry for yourself. It's quite the opposite of self-pity. Self-compassion actually helps you feel less sorry for yourself. It allows you to tune in, accept what you might not want to see, and move forward.
When you experience self-pity, you may tend to wallow in feeling sorry for yourself. You might believe you've screwed up and stay stuck in the idea that you've failed. The difference is that self-compassion allows you to say to yourself "Yes, this really sucked" and still move forward. You cannot change reality until you've accepted what is true about it.
Interestingly, research has found that people who practice self-compassion also spend less time stewing about misfortune, which allows you to spend less energy and time overthinking and ruminating about past mistakes. Ultimately, when you spend less time ruminating on things you cannot change, you may also feel less depressed and anxious about the here and now.
Myth 2: Self-compassion is a weakness.
It may surprise you that self-compassion is actually a form of strength. For example, research has found that those who forgive themselves quicker following a divorce tend to cope significantly better than those who are harder on themselves. People who practice self-forgiveness and self-compassion report higher senses of optimism and self-esteem and lower levels of depression and anxiety.
These studies suggest that it is not what happens to us as humans that matters most; it is how we treat ourselves that is the most significant factor in how we're able to cope and move forward from difficult situations.
Self-compassion is not a weakness. It takes courage to acknowledge and confront reality. Furthermore, your ability to practice self-compassion could make the difference in how smoothly you move through life's challenges.
Myth 3: Self-compassion is passivity and keeps you stuck.
A commonly held belief is that if you show yourself kindness you may not learn from your past mistakes or things won't improve. The fear is that if you're too kind or accepting of yourself, you won't push yourself hard enough to fulfill your goals. The misconception is that self-compassion is a get-out-of-jail-free card when it is actually more like a nurturing, wise parent who holds you accountable with your goals because it helps 'future you'.
For example, imagine you were stuck in a job that you hated. Perhaps you're being asked to take on too much at work and you leave each day feeling exhausted, defeated, and like a failure.
Now imagine a voice inside your mind was a critic; it pointed out all of your imperfections and constantly kicked you while you were down. Imagine this voice sounds something like "You really screwed that up," or "You're such a loser. Who would want to work with you?", or "You don't know what you're doing. You're going to fail."
How do you feel? This line of thinking may be natural and automatic, but it prompts feelings of shame, guilt, self-doubt, and sadness. These are heavy, draining emotions that we've all felt at some point. Can you recall the last time you felt a heavy emotion? Do you recall whether you felt enthusiastic and motivated to get up and do the thing you were telling yourself you "should do"? Or did you feel like crawling into bed pulling the covers over your head?
Negative self-talk and punishing inner dialogue functions to help motivate action, however, it does so in an unsustainable way. Self-compassion is an alternative way of being with yourself that can lead to the same goal achievement without the all-consuming self-loathing along the way.
Now picture a different voice in your mind: instead of an inner-critic you have an inner-coach. The inner-coach says something like "Hey, it's okay. I know this is difficult right now. We're going to take it one step at a time and get through this together. What can I do to help you move forward?" or "You've tried your best. Let's figure out another way through this."
As shown in the example above, self-compassion isn't about giving up or pitying yourself. Self-compassion is about accepting what is true about any given situation, showing. yourself kindness, and focusing on what is in your control to change.
How do you practice self-compassion?
Tip 1: Listen and tune in.
Negative self-talk becomes automatic through years of habitually responding to yourself in this way. Step one of any kind of change is always self-awareness and understanding the ways in which these habits impact your mood, goal achievement, worldview, anxiety, relationships, and self-image.
Being on autopilot is normal and human. Your brain naturally evolved to take cognitive shortcuts when it comes to perceived threats and to be unaware of non-threatening or familiar stimuli to allow more cognitive capacity to attend to immediately relevant demands. Although it is natural for us to be unaware of every single thought that pops into our mind, it's important to learn how to 'tune in' so that we can understand its impact and make changes.
Once you tune into your inner-dialogue, you can pause and then choose how to respond. For example, let's say you catch yourself having the thought "I really screwed up"; you pause, take a moment to reflect on how you're feeling, and redirect your mind from taking it's usual path of self-criticism.
Instead, you develop a new neural pathway based in self-compassion: "I really screwed up. I feel really guilty and sad about this. I guess my guilt is showing me I care about doing things differently next time. We all make mistakes sometimes. I'm human and I will make this plan to help me to not repeat this mistake in the future."
If you want help practicing tuning in, you can try a variety of different mindfulness-based exercises to help notice your thoughts. Remember, it takes time and practice to change your automatic reactions to negative thoughts.
Tip 2: Treat yourself like you would treat a friend.
It's true that we often treat ourselves differently than we would a loved one or close friend. If we could envision a friend struggling with the same situation as ourselves, we probably wouldn't react so harshly to them. Quite the opposite; we might try to support them in the moment.
So how do you become a self-compassionate friend to yourself?
First off, learn to let yourself make mistakes. You are only human and although we all strive for perfection, getting down on yourself will only make the situation worse. If your friend was going through a challenging time and made mistakes along the way, chances are you wouldn't focus on what they were doing wrong. You would probably acknowledge that their humanness and trust that they'll be okay in the end.
You can also learn to show yourself compassion as you would to loved ones. This could mean allowing yourself time to relax and take a break. This could be giving yourself a warm gesture, like a pat on the back, holding your hand, or hugging yourself [which has shown to release oxytocin in your system].
Being self-compassionate could mean simply changing the way you talk to yourself in difficult situations. Try switching to forgiving self-talk and using terms like "Darling," or "Sweetheart," to address yourself. Sounds cheesy, but who's going to hear it? Just try it.
Tip 3: Notice your self-criticism as a part of you, not ALL of you.
It's easier to treat yourself compassionately when your criticisms are only a part of you. When you unhook yourself from individual thoughts and feelings, it makes it easier for you to respond more kindly. Meditation and mindfulness has been shown to increase our self-awareness, while learning to accept difficult thoughts and feelings as a part of us [and our experiences].
Tip 4: Connect with a psychotherapist to get help.
Speaking with a mental health professional for the first time can bring up conflicting feelings. This is a common reaction and sometimes presents a barrier for people getting the help they need. A trained and licensed psychotherapist can help identify ways to increase self-compassion, facilitate your practice, and provide corrective feedback.
A psychotherapist can help you gain a sense of understanding of how your thoughts, feelings, and actions may be impacting you. Any good therapist will help you develop a better relationship to your internal experiences and foster skills for improving your external experiences. A psychotherapist can help you uncover your strengths, resiliency, and skills gaps, which helps them better understand what approach to self-compassion may suit you best.
Working with a psychotherapist means working with a mental health professional who is trained to listen and help evaluate your needs without judgment. Our clinicians genuinely care about helping you unpack what's happening with you and make improvements in your life - whatever that looks like for you.