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Practicing Self-Compassion

October 23, 2019
Carrie Wilkens, PhD
Carrie Wilkens, PhD

Have you ever said to yourself, “I shouldn’t be so mad about this”, “I should be able to handle this and it’s pathetic that I can’t”, “I can’t handle feeling so lost”, or “I should be able to just get over this and move on”? These statements may be all too familiar if you are someone who gets upset, scared or angry when you have negative or painful feelings (i.e., when you suffer). 

Unfortunately, when your harsh internal critic charges after you during times of vulnerability or suffering, it tends to amplify the pain associated with living life. And the increased pain can create an even stronger desire to avoid your pain and suffering all together. It’s not uncommon for people to turn to drugs, alcohol, food, spending, sex, isolation, and a variety of other strategies in an attempt to get away from emotional or physical pain. However, the reality is that these strategies bring problems of their own (physical dependency, poor health, debt, loneliness etc), often leading to a spiral of suffering that can seem never-ending.

Suffering is an aspect of life experienced by all humans, and when you embrace this concept, you can start to find some self-compassion instead of judgement or criticism (something you don’t really need when you are suffering!). Self-compassion involves noticing your suffering (e.g., becoming aware of shame, sadness, stress, anger, etc.) and practicing being kind to yourself during these painful moments.  

By practicing self-compassion during suffering, you can learn to stay with these feelings and care for yourself instead of potentially causing yourself even more suffering. Practicing kindness toward oneself is an important element of self-care. It helps give you the ‘oxygen’ you need to manage difficult situations and to deal with the pains of life in a healthier manner.  

The following exercises are borrowed from the work of one of the leading researchers on the benefits of self-compassion, psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff (see the links below to see more of her work). As you engage in these exercises, notice any judgments that may arise (e.g., “What’s the point of this?” “This is not going to work”, “This is silly”, etc.). As with any other new skill we try for the first time, the practice of self-compassion may feel strange at first. With practice, however, these exercises will begin to feel more natural. 

Hang in there and practice despite the initial awkwardness, because your effort will likely be rewarded. Research demonstrates that self-compassion is associated with higher levels of wellbeing – and the more you practice the better. Begin incorporating these skills into your daily life so that you feel more fully prepared to practice them when you are in the midst of a difficult situation.  

Self-Compassion Through Words

Mantra: Create and memorize 3 statements that reflect an attitude of self-compassion.  Practice reciting these thoughts during difficult moments.  

Sample Mantra:
I’m having a really hard time right now.
This is part of being human.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.

Work to recognize the presence of suffering.
Choose one of the following or create your own:
This is a moment of suffering.
I’m having a really hard time right now.
It’s painful for me to feel this now.

Remind yourself that we all face painful experiences.
Choose one of the following or create your own:
Suffering is a part of life.
Everyone feels this way sometimes.
This is part of being human.

Express intention of kindness toward yourself.
Choose one of the following or create your own:
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I hold my pain with tenderness.
May I be gentle and understanding with myself.

Dr. Neff has generously put up a variety of different self-compassion strategies on her website and her research shows how much it can improve your self-esteem, self-care and overall well being. You can see her work at the following links:

Self-Compassion Website

TED Talk: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion

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