This article was written by one of our SANE Forum Moderators - @Tortoiseshell
You’ve probably heard the phrase “be kind to yourself.” Perhaps when you were going through a tough time or someone heard you being especially hard on yourself. But what does it actually mean? Having a bubble bath? Gagging that self-critical voice? For those who find this concept a bit mysterious, we’ll talk through how to put self-compassion into practice.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is a loving and caring feeling that arises in response to our own suffering. It reduces our ‘threat’ system and stress hormones and activates the systems associated with love and bonding. This increases feelings of safety, security, and connectedness. Long-term this has benefits for mental health issues and stress. Kristin Neff has written and taught extensively on self-compassion, and put a real spotlight on how to apply it in everyday life. In practice it has three elements:
Mindfulness: We mentioned self-compassion is a response to our own suffering. This means we have to be present to some extent with our suffering for feelings of compassion to arise. That’s where a mindful attitude comes in. It helps us observe the pain without resisting it or letting it become the whole story of who we are.
Recognising the common humanity of pain and suffering: Often when we suffer we feel isolated, feeling that we are the only one to make mistakes, fail, or feel pain. Recognising our common humanity means acknowledging it is human to suffer. This increases feelings of connectedness and reduces self-criticism.
Kindness to self: When times are tough, we often criticise or berate ourselves. Self-kindness is treating ourselves in a way that is kind, supportive, and caring. Imagine your response when a friend is suffering. Chances are you say kind words or offer some help. Self-kindness is applying this response to ourselves too.
Self-compassion is a skill that can be learnt. Here are a few exercises to experiment with:
- Journal self-compassionately: Write down something you are struggling with at the moment using the elements of self-compassion (something not too painful to start off with). Mindfully label what you are feeling, also noticing where you are being critical of yourself, or where you are building up an upsetting story: “See, I knew it, I am a failure!” Then notice if you are feeling isolated in this struggle? Can you remind yourself of how this is a human experience? Lastly, write yourself some kind and supportive words that you would give to someone you care about: “I’m sorry you’re going through this, I care about you, I want to support you.”
- Again, write down something minor you are struggling with at the moment. Then imagine that a friend you care for has written this. What would you say to them? How would you support or encourage them?
- Try the inverse of this – in response to what you have written, imagine what a really supportive person in your life would say to you. They can be a person from your past, present, or a figure in your faith.
- Ask yourself, “what do I need right here, right now?” This is a way of tuning into your own needs like a supportive person or parent would do.
- Try a self-compassion meditation on insight timer.
Know your limits
For some people, it does not feel safe to be self-compassionate. For people who have experienced trauma, a lack of safety, or very distressing experiences, these practices can highlight how difficult conditions were in the past or are right now. For some, being tough or ‘self-critical’ might have been learnt or role modelled as the only way to get by in the world, so trying out self-compassion might feel unsafe and threatening.
It’s important we pay attention to our limits in trying out self-compassion exercises. It is normal for it to feel a bit uncomfortable, as for self-compassion to work we have to be present with suffering. Pay attention to your body, thoughts, and feelings, and whether it feels manageable. If it is overwhelming, step away and do something practical and grounding like petting an animal, getting a drink, or going for a walk. You can always come back and try again.
If self-compassion exercises feel overwhelming
- Any activities that meet your needs are a good substitute – walking the dog, getting outside, listening to music, having a cuppa, or seeing people you trust.
- Explore mindfulness, yoga, or breathing exercises that help you feel more comfortable being present with emotional pain.
- Get support from a counsellor, psychologist, or mental health professional. Ask them about self-compassion.
- Experiencing a compassionate therapeutic relationship with your mental health professional can also be a way of developing self-compassion.
- If you are struggling with isolation, check out our online mental health forum to connect with others concerned about mental health issues.
Self-compassion is a skill and one that definitely doesn’t come naturally for a lot of us. However, with practice, self-compassion provides a source of inner strength that can support us through tough times and help our mental health in the long term.
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