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Cultivating Self-Compassion

If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, it’s incomplete. – Jack Kornfield

Whether we are exploring what self-compassion is; better understanding the benefits of self-compassion; or practicing ways to build self-compassion – I find self-compassion to be a useful tool for most of my clients.

So what is self-compassion? In short, self-compassion is responding to yourself with understanding and kindness when you make a mistake, rather than judging yourself. Dr. Kirsten Neff is the pioneer of self-compassion research. She extends the definition to include these three elements: Kindness; Humanity; Mindfulness. Let’s take those one at a time.

Kindness (vs. self-judgement) – Self-compassion requires us to be understanding towards ourselves when we suffer or feel inadequate – rather than judge with self-criticism. It’s recognizing that being imperfect, failing and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable – so be gentle with yourself.

Humanity (vs. isolation) – Suffering and inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – we all take a slice from the “pain pie” at some time. Though our experience is our own – a key to self-compassion is knowing we’re not alone.

Mindfulness (vs. over-identification) – Self-compassion also requires us to take a balanced – realistic approach to our emotions so that the feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. At times we over-identify with a thought, feeling or experience – and get caught up and swept away by negative reaction.

Self-compassion has many benefits. On a physiological level, self-compassion may help you calm your nervous system to reduce anxiety and stress. It can trigger the release of oxytocin – the chemical which increases the feelings of trust, safety and calm. Self-compassion can improve your self-esteem. It helps you look at your mistakes as something external to you, instead of a reflection of who you are. Self-compassion can lead to higher life satisfaction. If we spend less time picking apart our flaws and dwelling on our mistakes – we have more time for the things we love to do and the people we love to spend time with. We also know that self-compassion can increase motivation. When you’re less afraid of failure, it becomes easier to take leaps into the unknown. Lastly, self-compassion promotes a growth mindset. It can make you feel less vulnerable and more capable of handling things like failure or being wrong.

All of that sounds great – right? If you’ve come this far, you’re likely still reading so that you can find some tips and tricks to practicing ways to build self-compassion. As the pioneer of self-compassion, Dr. Neff also has one of the most comprehensive list of exercises and practices on her website – Here are a few tips to get you started with your self-compassion journey:

Express Gratitude – Keep a daily gratitude journal. Beyond what you are thankful for, perhaps answer some of the following prompts: what is my favorite thing about myself; what part of my life do I love right now; how can I practice self-care today; what is something I did well today?

Celebrate Small Accomplishments – Achievement is often connected to self-esteem. Remember, big accomplishments are comprised of smaller ones.

Check Your Self-Talk – A part of self-compassion is changing the way we speak to ourselves. When something bad, painful or shameful happens, stop and think for a moment, “How would I speak to a good friend if the same thing happened to them?”

Practice Loving-Kindness – Guided mindfulness and meditation practice can also help you practice turning attention away from negative internal dialogue toward positive thoughts of others. Through practice, we can activate and nurture pathways in the brain and restructure thinking.

Acts of Kindness – Practicing self-care can be a great act of kindness. Ask yourself, “What do I need right now, at this moment?”

Affirmations – Affirmations can help you flip the script on your negative thinking. “I am human, and humans make mistakes.” “I messed up, and that’s okay.” “I’m doing the best I can.”

Way to go! Take reading this as your first practice towards self-compassion!


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