By Elayne Daniels – PhD, Kristen Sudnik – Ed.S.

How To Cultivate Self-Compassion

“If you are continually judging and criticizing yourself while trying to be kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation.”

~ Kristin Neff

Pema Chödrön Compassion Quote
Elayne Daniels

Compassion is generally considered an enviable quality. 

It incorporates kindness, understanding and empathy,  along with the desire to help someone who is suffering.

But what about self-compassion?  

Self-compassion integrates mindfulness, wisdom, and empathy toward ourselves as flawed beings.  And we are all flawed!  A common trap when something doesn’t go our way is to blame ourselves or someone else. We may forget in the moment that to be human means there will be hardship.  That is where self compassion comes in.

Self compassion is the healthy alternative to self-flagellation, i.e to the belief that we should be able to rise above events, people, or anything  for that matter, that cause us suffering.

People who are suspicious of self- compassion may think  it is self indulgent, selfish, and an invitation to a grand ol’ pity party  for oneself. The reality is that self compassion is none of those things. In fact, self compassion is associated with resiliency, motivation, and overall well-being.  

Practicing self-compassion incorporates three steps:

  1. Mindfulness, as in  recognition of one’s own suffering.
  2. Acknowledgement of the universality of shared experiences as human beings
  3. A  mantra to repeat to yourself, similar to a comment you would make to a dear friend.

The person who literally wrote the book (aptly titled Self-compassion) on self-compassion is Dr Kristen Neff. Her TedTalk and website are chock full of information, including an elaboration of the aforementioned  three step self-compassion practice.

My summary incorporates a lot of her work.

Myth #1: Self compassion is a disguised way to justify feeling sorry for yourself.

Perhaps ironic, but true:  Self-compassion improves mental health. It provides an acceptance and acknowledgement of our struggles while also feeling empathy toward our difficulties. Acknowledging our feelings facilitates processing them. Neff’s and her colleagues’ research consistently confirms this finding.

Myth #2: Self-esteem, not self-compassion, is what really matters.

In the United States, high self-esteem is a highly sought after pursuit because it ‘proves’ we are above average. By definition, everyone can not be above average at the same time or all the time. There will always be someone  who is (fill in the blank) er than we are. On certain dimensions, all of us would feel like a failure if we were to compare ourselves to people who excel in those particular domains.

Insistence to be better than average in order to maintain high self esteem can lead to all sorts of undesirable outcomes, including bullying and “isms” such as racism and sexism.

While self esteem and self-compassion are associated with well being, the former is a judgment or evaluation of worth.  

Self-compassion is a way of relating to who we are with kindness, especially when we feel inadequate.

In essence, self-esteem requires (perceived) superiority to others, whereas self-compassion requires acknowledging that we share the human experience of imperfection.

Self-esteem is tentative, coinciding with our most recent success or failure.  Self-compassion is a more reliable source of support because we are able to be kind to ourselves due to the fact we are hurting.

Myth #3: Self-compassion is selfish.

Most people find that when they’re absorbed in self-judgment, they actually don’t have much energy to think about anything other than their own sense of inadequacy and worthlessness. When we show ourselves kindness,  however, we are in a better position to focus on others.

Being  kind to yourself helps you be kind and loving to others. The adage “You can’t give from an empty cup” is a reminder.

Myth #4: Self-compassion is weakness.

Newsflash: Dr Neff and her associates have found that self-compassion actually enhances resiliency and coping.

Myth #5: Self-compassion will cause me to lose my edge.

The notion that self compassion will cause complacency is completely unfounded.

Consider a situation in which a child does poorly on a test in school. 

If the teacher disgustedly reprimands the child (e.g. “You idiot! How can you be so stupid?”), shame and low motivation likely result. 

What if the teacher instead said something caring and understanding (e.g.”Oh sweetie, I am so sorry. I know you studied hard. What can I do to support you? Let’s figure this out together.”)? Certainly the child is more likely to feel motivated, emotionally supported, and confident.

Self-flagellation is an ineffective motivator.

Self-compassion helps us to bounce back, and to do so more quickly and less scathed. Encouragement and support help when self-channelled in our own direction.

Psychologists have known for a long time that being kind to ourselves isn’t selfish, weak, or narcissistic, and that it is a quality that makes us happier.

We now have solid science to support the benefits of self-compassion.

Dr. Elayne Daniels – 

Kristen Sudnik

Self-compassion and mindfulness are inextricably linked.

If you were to look up the meaning for self-compassion, you would find that compassion means “to suffer with.” Mindfulness involves non-judgmental observation, and therefore awareness of what is happening within. 

When you engage in mindfulness and self-compassion, you are accepting the moment as it is, without criticism.

You get comfortable with being uncomfortable and realize that we are all interconnected- we all experience suffering, inadequacy and imperfection.

For me, a daily meditation practice preceded my engagement with the practice of self-compassion. It is different for everyone, but I will say that having a solid mindfulness practice helped me recognize the incredibly unkind things I was saying to myself, about myself. It also allowed me to practice forgiveness and begin to change.

Regardless of where you are in your practice, try the following exercises to cultivate self-compassion:

Start to bring awareness to your thoughts.

Change cannot occur without being aware of what needs to be changed. This can be done in a number of ways. 

  • When you look at yourself in the mirror, what are you saying to yourself? 
  • Similarly, when you are frustrated or struggling to complete something, how do you speak to yourself? 
  • What about when you do something well? 

You can either begin to mentally or physically take note of these statements. Do you see a pattern?

The human brain is constantly trying to make sense of what is happening around us.

We look for things in our environment to confirm our thoughts and biases, including those negative thoughts about ourselves.

  • What negative thoughts do you have about yourself? 
  • What were you told as a child that you still carry with you today? Write them down. Write down how they have impacted you and continue to impact you. 
  • How do these thoughts play into your beliefs and behavior? 
  • How do they affect your life and how you feel about yourself? 
  • What new thoughts can replace the old ones? 

You move from a threat mindset to an opportunity mindset. When you change your thoughts, your feelings and behavior will follow.

Personify the negative thoughts about yourself.

Once you begin to recognize your critical voice, give it a name. By doing this, you separate the negative talk from yourself and it becomes easier to recognize. You are not your thoughts. 

Once your “person” (or monster) starts talking, talk back and challenge them.  

If you are being unkind to yourself, think about the situation as if it were occurring to a young child, or someone you love unconditionally.

  • How would you talk them through the situation? 
  • Would you repeatedly tell them that they are a failure, or that everything is their fault? 
  • In general, would you deprive a child of sleep? 
  • Would you continually force them to work, without breaks or play? 
  • Why would you treat yourself any differently? 

You are deserving of the same love, compassion and care.

Believe what others tell you- when your friends, family, colleagues or even complete strangers compliment you, tell you about your strengths, or thank you for your kindness- believe them.

Is it difficult for you to tell a loved one how brilliant they are? No, it is effortless because you mean it. So why are you unworthy of the compliments you receive?

Write a thank you letter to yourself.

Truly give yourself thanks for all that you do, for yourself, for others, and for the planet. Thank your body for the movement it engages in each day. 

If this exercise is difficult for you, try writing a letter from an imaginary friend’s perspective- a friend who is kind, loving, compassionate, generous and non-judgmental. 

What would that person say to you? How would they forgive you for your missteps?

Say, “I love you” to your body.

I am sad to admit it, but I only recently did this for the first time- and I am in my mid-thirties. Why did it take me so long? Try saying, “I love you” to your body on a consistent basis and see how it changes the most important relationship you will ever have- the one with yourself.  

Self-reflection is the most difficult work we can do, but it is the most worthy and purposeful.

We cannot serve others if we do not first serve ourselves. 

Having self-compassion or practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean we get to walk through life not caring about anything and continually forgiving ourselves for being indifferent or cruel. 

It is quite the opposite. It is showing kindness to ourselves, which then allows us to show kindness to the world. It lifts us all.

In the words of Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, “If you want to do your best for future generations of humanity, for your friends and family, you must begin by taking good care of yourself.”

Kristen Sudnik, Ed.S. –

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