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How to practice self-compassion (or “Would you say that to a friend?”)

One of the things I find myself saying out loud in sessions is “would you say that to a friend?” It’s usually in response to someone sharing about the self-ridicule they have been doing or the critical and bully-style narrative that goes on in their head.

We all have different narration happening inside...various thoughts and voices that come up in response to situations and how we view our place in them. Self-compassion is the opposite of being a self-bully. Self-compassion is about relating to yourself with kindness as you would relate with (and speak to) a friend you cared about.

You have probably heard about self-esteem and the importance of having a strong self-esteem. A strong self-esteem can help us feel more confident, happy, and at ease with ourselves and others. Confidence too, is an important and helpful tool in facing challenges and daily life. Self-compassion is quite different and it is an important complement to a strong self-esteem and sense of confidence.

Let’s look at these concepts:

Self-esteem is about having an internal sense of worth and value. It involves feeling like we value who we are, the traits we embody, and what we contribute. Strong self-esteem stands even when we compare ourselves to others who we define as “better” in some way. We still know we have value.

Self-esteem is helpful and good but our well-being or mood can fall into jeopardy if we suddenly feel disappointed in who we are or if we believe that important others do not see us as valuable or worthy.

Confidence is about believing in yourself regarding your ability to try things, rise up to challenges, and deal with difficulties. It is often attached to taking action. It’s based in a realistic sense of your capabilities and your ability to have success in some way. It’s also the ability to see yourself as fallible and still trust in your potential to succeed. Confidence is important and can also falter if we face a string of failures or receive negative feedback about our performance.

Self-compassion is about relating to yourself kindly. It’s not really about assessing yourself as worthy or successful. It’s not about seeing yourself as capable or competent. It is about treating yourself with love and kindness and support no matter what, rather than criticism and ridicule and judgement.

Self-criticism is what we do when we feel inadequate or that we have failed at something. We tend to criticize ourselves because we want to root out the problem and feel less bad by identifying what needs to change. We want to scold or mold whatever it was that led us to “fail” or be (feel) unworthy. This is a human behavior that we all do and the introspection can be helpful, to a degree.

And also it’s important to realize that the more you criticize yourself, the more likely you are to feel anxious, depressed, unmotivated, overwhelmed, and to struggle with ineffective ways to cope with all that (like avoiding people or engaging in unhealthy soothing behaviors like overeating or substance use, etc.).

Self-compassion can be an important tool for moments when we feel a sense of failure as a person, that we failed in performing a particular way, or feel that others might see us poorly.

Imagine a young kid who practiced for weeks getting the soccer ball into the goal...and the day of the big game, takes a crucial shot and misses. She feels ashamed and disappointed that she let herself & her team & her parents down. She wants to give up or run and hide.

Recognizing the distress on her face, a compassionate adult would offer some comfort:

“Honey, that was really tough, I know you put in a lot of effort with your practice,”

“It’s so hard when we feel disappointed in how we did something.”

“Can I give you a hug right now?”

“You were brave to take such a risk and you had so much energy in your kick.”

“Of course you are feeling disappointed right now and it’s probably hard to feel like you are still an important part of the team.”

Alternatively, an un-compassionate adult might go into ridicule, criticism, shaming, berating or ostracizing. Responses that lack compassion typically includes words and statements like:

“You should have...”

“You could have just...”

“If only you had…”

“I told you to…”

“I told you not to….”

Or even worse:

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I can’t believe that you….”

“How could you….?”

“I’m so disappointed in you.”

"You're such a failure."

“I don’t even want to look at you right now.”

Take a minute to compare the two approaches above.

Which would you rather receive?

Which approach would you offer someone you cared about?

Which approach are you currently taking for yourself?

The idea with self-compassion is to be that caring adult to yourself when you have a tough soccer ball moment.

Common concerns about having self-compassion.

Before getting to the HOW of being more self-compassionate, let me first address the common fears about having self-compassion:

I’ll lose motivation and won’t try as hard. For some reason we tend to believe that the critical voice inside keeps us pushing forward and striving to be better. But most often, criticism is emotionally deflating and ends up taking away our energy to keep trying or push forward.

We can actually be more motivated to try things and exert ourselves when we know it will feel okay inside if we fail. Self-compassion grows our sense of resilience when we do fail or struggle. In essence: If we know that we can miss a goal and still feel like a lovable person, it makes us more willing to take the shot.

I’ll become a narcissist or too focused on myself. The opposite is true - if you can consistently feel more okay inside about yourself, it will become easier to focus on others rather than being caught up in your internal thoughts and feelings as frequently.

I won’t notice my flaws or areas for growth. Some people worry that they’ll fall into unwarranted praise of self and miss out on helpful introspection that can lead to positive changes. Actually, self-compassion includes seeing ourselves exactly as we are, mistakes and all.

People who practice self-compassion are actually more able to receive feedback from others or observe the need for critical changes in themselves because they can receive it without getting overwhelmed or sucked into a negative spiral of self-judgement.

I’ll become self-absorbed or selfish. The opposite is true here. When we are able to effectively soothe ourselves, build ourselves up, and take care of our own emotional needs, we don’t depend as much on others to meet our needs for us. This gives us more emotional energy to offer other folks. On the flipside, if others don’t meet our needs as we expect and we don’t know how to meet our own needs, we get upset or hurt and pull away, which can look like selfishness from the outside.

What self-compassion actually looks like.

Self-compassion is not about approving of everything we do or have done. We have all done things (or not done things), that we regret or wish to change. Self- compassion is a way to move on from beating ourselves up for these human “failings” so that we can feel strong enough to learn from them and do better in the future.

Self-compassion is about caring for ourselves as humans, not in a way that is linked to our performance or worth or value to others. We don’t have to earn self-compassion by being successful or perfect, and we don’t lose self-compassion when we make mistakes. We simply see and accept ourselves as humans who sometimes make mistakes or act ineffectively.

Okay, so how do I have more self-compassion?

1. Talk to yourself the way you would a friend or a small child. Focus on self-statements of encouragement, warmth, support, unconditional acceptance and soothing. Keep in mind the words you might offer to a friend struggling with a similar issue. Some examples are below to give you the idea. Be mindful that it’s important to use your own voice and speak compassionately to yourself in a way that feels believable and not canned or trite.

  • This is a tough moment that calls for some tender care.

  • Tough moments are unavoidable, I just need to get through it.

  • Humans need and deserve support and kindness when they are struggling.

  • I’m struggling right now and I will give myself what I need.

  • This is a hard moment, I’m going to do what I can to make it better.

  • I’m a dynamic human being and I’m not defined by this moment.

  • Right now I need some soothing.

  • I matter what.

  • I’m lovable no matter what.

  • It sucks that I’m dealing with this.

  • I really tried hard and my effort matters more than the outcome.

  • I hate that this is happening and I need some kindness.

2. Focus on what you need or what would feel soothing and offer that to yourself.

  • Make a favorite warm drink or take a warm bath/shower.

  • Let yourself snuggle under the covers or with a pet.

  • Find a safe place to cry and let yourself feel the emotions.

  • Give yourself a hug or ask for a hug from someone.

  • Consider what you would offer to someone else if they were dealing with the same difficulty and offer that to yourself.

3. Validate any emotions you are having and let it be okay to feel upset about the moment.

  • It makes sense that I feel ________, that’s a human reaction to this.

  • Most other people would also feel ________ about this.

  • This is absolutely difficult, of course I’m feeling _________

  • If my friend was feeling ________, I would tell them _______.

Growing your skill with self-compassion

Self-compassion is a practice. Most of us did not have self-compassion modeled by others as we grew up. Heck, we might not have had regular compassion offered to us or modeled either! Once you become aware that the critical and judgmental self-talk is the opposite of helpful, it can be easier to start catching yourself doing it and offer yourself some self-compassion instead.

As humans, we are “programmed” to respond positively to warmth and love and care. Your brain and your physical self respond productively when you receive these things. With continued practice of self-compassion, over time you will notice the benefits to your mood, daily experiences, and relationships.

For further exploration, look into Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on the benefits and strategies of improving self-compassion. This book and this TED Talk can be a helpful place to start: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion: Kristin Neff


If high anxiety and other intense emotions are getting in the way of loving yourself well, take a look at my 8-week online emotion regulation course to see if it's a fit for you.


Image credits to Vince Fleming and Halacious via Unsplash

Note that the above book link is an affiliate link and if you make a purchase I may receive a small commission. 


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