“Self-compassion” is a phrase that gets used a lot, but what does it actually mean? I remember when I was first told to be compassionate towards myself, I had no idea what that actually entailed. I set out to do some research to discover if self-compassion is something that is genuinely important, or if it is simply a buzzword that gets thrown around.
I found my answers in the writings of Russ Harris, an incredible Acceptance and Commitment Therapy clinician and researcher. He describes self-compassion as being “a whole lot more than just ‘being kind to yourself.’ It is often very challenging: a huge act of courage (Harris, 2019, p. 202).” Self-compassion is not a simple task. It is more than positive self-talk. Thankfully, it is well worth the effort.
Self-compassion has been shown to be an effective practice in the treatment of a wide variety of mental health diagnoses and difficulties (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). There is also evidence that self-compassion is one of the most significant predictors of a positive quality of life when someone is experiencing anxiety and depression (Van Damn, Sheppard, Forsyth, & Earleywine, 2011). It has been shown to be one of the most helpful techniques you can use when experiencing stress (Neely et al., 2009). The research is clear on the positive impact of self-compassion. But if self-compassion is more than being kind to ourselves, what exactly is it?
A key element of self-compassion is acknowledging the wound. Take the time to let yourself know that you are hurting. Notice the distressing thoughts and feelings that are present. Your mind may tell you that you “shouldn’t” be feeling this way. It may tell you that your pain is invalid. Notice those thoughts. They are trying to hide your pain. All too often we tend to go right into avoidance mode — distracting ourselves from the pain or trying to “just get over it.” Instead of numbing yourself, allow those thoughts and feelings to come in. Accept them for what they are: your own experience. Understand that these feelings are normal. They are a part of being human. They are not a sign of weakness. These painful feelings are simply a sign that you care.
Make room for this pain. Like all feelings, it is temporary.
No one is without pain, just like no one is without joy. Do not try and diminish it as unimportant or something to run away from. Once you have created this space, hold yourself kindly. This is the central pillar of self-compassion.
When we are struggling and experiencing this pain, we need kindness more than ever. Give yourself gentle or compassionate messages. You may write kind words to yourself. You could make a habit of doing something you enjoy, such as reading a book. Personally, I write at least two things I did well that day, every day. Sometimes I feel like I have conquered the world and my accomplishments are outstanding. Other times I have simply written, “I’ve gotten out of bed, made my bed, and showered.” Any success is still success, and it is okay to treat yourself with kindness, especially in times of crisis. When everything feels out of our control, it is important to take some time to savor what we can control.
One aspect of self-compassion that is frequently forgotten is to also look outward. Just because self-compassion includes the self does not mean that it excludes others. Often when we are struggling internally, it appears as if everyone else is succeeding. However, when we take a step back and look at those around us, we can see that others are suffering in very similar ways. Instead of trying to measure your own struggles against those around you, remember that any amount of pain is still pain. Just because someone is struggling more or less than you does not take away from your own experiences. It is once we develop the ability to empathize and see others’ suffering that we can create a sense of something bigger than us. We never have to suffer alone.
Finally, remember that self-compassion is like any other skill: it can only become natural through practice. Everything that we take for granted has come to be this way through repetition. Take walking as an example. When we are first learning to walk, we are essentially just trying to delay falling. However, over time “not falling” develops into “moving forward intentionally.” Eventually, we get to where we are able to move our legs and support ourselves without even thinking about it. It becomes a subconscious part of ourselves. The same is true for self-compassion. It will feel like you are failing, or falling down. However, it is only through falling down that you can learn to walk. Eventually, you will be able to practice self-compassion almost without conscious thought. Do not expect for this transition to be “natural.” Your mind may tell you that you should just be able to do this effortlessly. Acknowledge these criticisms and continue your self-compassion practice. You deserve and need it. We all do.
Harris, R. (2019). ACT Made Simple (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland: CA.
MacBeth, A. & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(6), pp. 545-552.
Neely, M. E., Schallert, D. L., Mohammed, S. S., Roberts, R. M., & Chen, Y. (2009). Self-kindness when facing stress: The role of self-compassion, goal regulation, and support in college students’ well-being. Motivation and Emotion, 33, pp. 88-97.
Van Dam, N. T., Sheppard, S. C., Forsyth, J. P., & Earleywine, M. (2011). Self-compassion is as good a predictor as mindfulness in symptom severity and quality of life in mixed anxiety and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25(1), pp. 123-130.