The last time you encountered difficulty or suffering, felt anxious or depressed, or something didn’t go according to expectations, how did you talk to yourself? Maybe you didn’t actually say anything aloud. Maybe you did. What did you say or think? What was the tone? How did your way of talking to yourself impact your mood? For many of us, our default way of talking to ourselves is harsh, overly critical, judgmental, and punitive: “I’m never good enough.” “I’m such an idiot.” “I don’t deserve to be happy.” Talking to ourselves this way certainly has a negative impact on our mood, resulting in an increase of feelings of anxiety and/or depression. This, in turn, can impact our behaviors. We may stop trying to reach a goal or even punish ourselves. We may assume that others are judging us as harshly as we are judging ourselves.
Now imagine a good friend being in a similar situation. What would you say to your friend? What would your tone be like? How do you imagine your words would impact your friend’s mood? What do you wish for your friend? Perhaps you would offer a hug or some words of encouragement.
What differences do you notice between how you talk to yourself and how you talk to your friend? How might your life change if you regularly talked to yourself with the same kindness that you would offer a friend? This practice is called self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher of self-compassion, explains self-compassion like this: “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”
There are three major components of self-compassion. The first is acknowledging that suffering is present. This means being mindful of that difficult moment. This may look like saying, “This is hard for me right now.” The second is remembering that suffering is a part of life and is part of our shared human experience. In other words, “I’m not alone in my suffering.” The third part is to gently say, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” The third part includes being mindfully aware of what emotions are present and being an observer of those emotions. Acknowledge the thoughts and feelings while remembering that they don’t define you. Think of what you need in that moment of suffering to help you through.
Research shows that self-compassion supports positive mental health, including less anxiety and depression, more positive emotions, increased motivation, improved coping, and improved interpersonal relationships. The next time you experience suffering, I invite you to give self-compassion a try. As you practice cultivating self-compassion, please remember to be kind to yourself. The goal is not to be perfectly self-compassionate; offer yourself self-compassion for struggling with self-compassion. We’re all human after all. Since it’s a mindset, it’s a tool you can take with you wherever you go, no matter what you’re experiencing.
Not sure where to start? Therapy is a great place to begin learning about self-compassion; it’s a space where you can be yourself as you explore your current thinking patterns and practice new ways of thinking and talking to yourself. Your therapist will walk alongside you on your journey of becoming more self-compassionate.
Outside of therapy sessions, Dr. Kristin Neff’s website has a variety of free self-compassion guided meditations and exercises. If it feels a bit awkward at first, remember that this is totally normal. Feel free to experiment with what works for you, and trust that with time, practicing self-compassion will become more natural for you.