For many of us being kind to ourselves is hard. It’s hard even when we’re struggling — and need compassion most. Instead, we get mad. We tell ourselves to buck up. We wonder why we’re so weak. We criticize and hurl insults. We withhold our favorite things — telling ourselves that we don’t deserve to participate in enjoyable activities, because after all, we screwed up everything.
But the good news is that we can learn to cultivate self-compassion. Which is vital. Self-compassion helps us to meet life’s challenges in a supportive way, said Amy Finlay-Jones, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, compassion teacher, and researcher who specializes in self-compassion. In fact, according to research, self-compassion has a measurable effect on our mental health and well-being, she said. (See here and here.)
Self-compassion is “the intentional cultivation of a relationship with oneself that is respectful, kind and compassionate,” said Celedra Gildea, Ph.D, a psychotherapist in Portland, Ore., who leads Mindful Self-Compassion, Compassion Cultivation Training and Mindfulness groups. Below are six ways you can start cultivating self-compassion, even if you’ve been berating yourself for years.
Reduce disparaging times, and up kind moments
Simply notice when you feel most self-critical and aggressive toward yourself, Finlay-Jones said. Maybe it’s when you’re tired or overworked. Maybe it’s when you’re spending too much time on social media. “Whatever it is, see if you can refrain from it a little.”
Also, pay attention to the times you feel nourished and comfortable with yourself, she said. This might be when you’re taking a walk in nature or hanging out with friends or working on a creative project. “Whatever it is, see if you can cultivate a little more of it in your life.”
This can give us more space to be gentle and curious with ourselves, Finlay-Jones said.
Take a self-compassion break
Gildea suggested trying an exercise created by self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, which helps us recognize and soothe our suffering. Put your hand on your heart or any place that feels comforting.
Simply say, “This hurts” or “This is suffering.” Next, say something that acknowledges that you’re part of a community of people struggling, such as: “I’m not alone” or “We all struggle in our lives.” Lastly, offer yourself some kindness, such as: “May I be kind to myself,” “May I accept myself as I am,” or “May I be patient.”
Speak tender words — like you would to a child or your child
“Many of us think that we don’t have the capacity or words to give ourselves compassion,” Gildea said. She shared a powerful story that reveals we do. Gildea was volunteering at a women’s abuse shelter, trying to teach a group of women the self-compassion break. Because of all the pain they’d endured, they couldn’t find any words of compassion for themselves.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Another volunteer brought in a baby who was crying. The mom took her baby into her arms and started whispering loving words, like: “Don’t you worry sweet one, we are going to be OK. I’m right here and no one is going to hurt you anymore.” She was able to effortlessly shower her child with compassion.
“Deeply touched, we all put our hands on [our] hearts and spoke the same words of compassion, imagining our little child sitting next to our adult selves safely in our hearts,” Gildea said. “They had found the key.” You can try the same.
Try this loving meditation
Another way to start practicing self-compassion is by bringing to mind a loved one and noticing the feelings of love and warmth that tend to arise, Finlay-Jones said. “Step-by-step, we become more skillful at mobilizing this capacity, so that after a time, we are more able to include ourselves in the circle of compassion.” She created this beautiful meditation for readers to try.
Pay attention to how you’re practicing
“Self-compassion is not about self-improvement,” Finlay-Jones said. She stressed the importance of paying attention to how you’re practicing self-compassion. Do you have an attitude of impatience or harshness? Are you being considerate and comforting?
Many of her clients share long lists of self-care practices they’ve tried. These lists might include everything from yoga to psychotherapy to meditation to running. Yet, they feel anything but cared for. Instead, they feel exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, Finlay-Jones said. “This is often because they are demanding and aggressive with themselves in the process — treating themselves as though they are a problem to be fixed, and self-care is the solution.”
To be truly self-compassionate, she noted, it’s important to work on acknowledging that we are all acceptable exactly as we are.
Delve into your needs and values
Self-compassion goes deeper than supporting ourselves in the moment. According to Finlay-Jones, it “involves understanding what our deeper needs and values are, and aligning our behavior accordingly.” For instance, one deeper need all of us have is connection. As she writes in this piece, you might meet this need by spending time with friends, playing with your pet, listening to music, and helping others.
You might be thinking, but what if I don’t deserve self-compassion? What if I don’t feel worthy or loveable or deserving of kindness?
As Finlay-Jones said, start practicing anyway. “[S]elf-compassion is so important precisely because we don’t feel worthy, or deserving, or loveable. There is, therefore, no better time to start.”