By: Katya Santucci
This blog has been reviewed by Gingin Chien and Emeline Wyckaert, edited by Rémi Thériault, and formatted and published by Béa Schueller.
“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” — Dr. Kristin Neff
It’s easy to knock yourself down when things don’t go as planned. But how can you make it easier to pick yourself up?
Something I always want to work on — and really struggle with — is learning how to be kinder to myself. It’s very common to feel like you aren’t doing enough or that everything you’re working towards feels so out of reach. At times, I personally experience an overwhelming sense of defeat and helplessness. But it’s also more than that. With any negative event that occurs, we often tend to be unsympathetic towards ourselves. On the other hand, when our friends come to us with an issue, we are quick to console and support them. In fact, the last thing we think of doing is passing on judgement. However, when it comes to ourselves, we become our worst critics. I am well aware of the fact that I don’t treat myself with the same kindness and empathy that I show to others. I immediately think about what I did wrong and how badly I messed up (even if I really did nothing wrong!).
So the question arises… Why are we so hard on ourselves? And how can we work on that?
When it comes to ourselves, we become our worst critics.
According to psychologist Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, self-compassion entails three critical components: (1) Being kind to yourself (2) Embracing common humanity (i.e., understanding that your experiences are a normal part of life) and (3) Mindfulness (present moment awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of your thoughts and feelings)¹. When you are self-compassionate, you are understanding and accepting of your failures — you are understanding that it’s a part of life and after all, you are only human. And humans make mistakes…. lots of them (which is totally okay). To put it simply, being self-compassionate means that you have a healthy attitude towards your actions and to who you are. It’s also worth noting that self-compassion can have a significant impact on overall well-being and psychological health²⋅³.
Being self-compassionate means that you have a healthy attitude towards your actions and to who you are.
Dr. Neff notes that a common assumption — and misunderstanding — is that self-compassion undermines motivation. On the contrary, it can actually increase your intrinsic motivation². We don’t need to critique ourselves in order to feel motivated, be better or work harder. By expressing self-compassion, you aren’t being “too easy” on yourself, rather you are being patient and understanding (which is actually smart for the long run!). It doesn’t mean that you’re running away from your hardships either. You are forgiving and patient with your faults, allowing yourself to heal and move forward.
An important aspect of self-compassion is emotion regulation¹. For example, this consists of taking the time to understand your emotions and realize that they are valid and important as opposed to dismissing them. Cognitive restructuring is another way in which self-compassionate people are able to keep a positive morale³. More specifically, positive cognitive restructuring allows you to alter your point of view in order to see something in a more positive light. Rather than dismissing negativity and dwelling in disappointment, cognitive restructuring helps you look at the bright side and see things through an optimistic lens. The mindfulness component of self-compassion should also not be overlooked. It involves taking a balanced perspective in which you acknowledge the negative emotions you’re experiencing and accept them without judgement³. It’s important to note that self-compassion differs from self-esteem; primarily because it’s not contingent on comparisons between the self and other. Self-compassion does not consist of determining your self-worth but rather embracing yourself altogether, the good and the bad. In fact, self-compassion can provide the same benefits as self-esteem (e.g., greater happiness) but they do not share the same negative consequences (e.g., stress and loneliness). To read more about the distinction between the two, click here.
Self-compassion does not consist of determining your self-worth but rather embracing yourself altogether, the good and the bad.
Neff and Germer (2013) conducted a study in which they evaluated the effectiveness of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, a short-term workshop designed with the primary goal of training individuals to be more self-compassionate. The workshop consists of providing individuals with accessible tools, for example, quick exercises aimed at developing a compassionate inner voice and dealing with difficult emotions, that they can integrate into their daily lives. Remarkably, they found that the intervention group had a greater increase in self-compassion compared with the waitlist control group (i.e., group that received the program at a later date to test effectiveness). Other benefits associated with taking part in the MSC program included greater life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Ways in which you can increase your self-compassion
Below are a few self-guided exercises that come from Psychologist Kristin Neff. I have personally enjoyed learning about these and actively putting them into practice! Setting aside a few minutes here and there to engage in the following can help you explore that compassionate inner voice.
(1) Treat yourself like a good friend
You may be noticing that the way you talk to yourself is very different from the way you would respond to a friend. Keeping this in mind might help you treat yourself more warmly and kind the next time you find yourself struggling. For example, when I am feeling particularly upset with myself, I try to take a step back and take an outsider’s perspective. Think about it this way: If a friend came to you with that same issue, how would you respond to them? Remember that you are worthy of the same love and compassion you would give to someone you care about.
Every now and then, take a moment to reflect on the ways in which you treated yourself that day. Notice your tone of voice and your choice of words. How were you feeling in those moments? Could you have been nicer to yourself? Jot it down and take time to sit with those thoughts.
(3) Identify what you really want
Notice what gets you most upset and what you criticize yourself the most for. Do you see a pattern? During my undergraduate degree, I was extremely hard on myself when things didn’t go as planned (e.g., getting a lower grade than expected or not securing a research position on time). I realized that this was a recurring issue and I thought pushing myself harder would solve everything. On the contrary, it became overwhelming, and frankly only made me feel worse about myself. By taking the time to think about my goals and acknowledge the hard work I was putting in, I was able to start encouraging myself rather than knock myself down. This lifted a huge amount of weight off my shoulders. That critical inner voice shifted to a more positive one and I found myself slowly starting to gain more confidence. I was there for myself!
Just like many other things we try to change or work on, cultivating self-compassion can take time. Give yourself the space to get there and remember to be kind to yourself throughout the process. If the content in this blog has resonated with you or if you simply want to learn more about self-compassion, I highly recommend checking out Dr. Neff’s personal website page: https://self-compassion.org/. Here, you will have the opportunity to learn more about self-compassion and have access to more resources and practices.
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1. Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–102.
2. Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69, 28–44.
3. Allen, A. B., & Leary, M. R. (2010). Self-compassion, stress, and coping. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(2), 107–118.