Learning Self-Compassion

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Compassion is a desirable quality, one we try to cultivate in our children, toward our friends and family and within our local communities. When a friend is feeling down or discouraged, we don’t hesitate to comfort them and offer words of understanding. Yet when it comes to our own experience, many find it difficult to turn this compassion inward. Instead, the inner critic inside us may strike a harsh tone: “Why did you have to be so stupid?”  “You’ll never make it.”

Self-compassion can be defined as a self-attitude that involves treating oneself with warmth and understanding in difficult times and recognizing that making mistakes is part of being human (Neff, 2003). Compassion is not sympathy, but rather an offering of kindness toward the challenges we face and the inevitable missteps we may make.

In working with patients to cultivate self-compassion, I have found that many are reluctant to introduce a kinder, gentler tone for fear that they may become “lazy” or “soft.” In fact, research shows that individuals who practiced self-compassion showed higher levels of self-improvement motivation, including a willingness to make amends or spend more time studying after taking a difficult test (Breines & Chen, 2012). Reflect on times in your life when you felt motivated for change. What allowed you to feel that way? Did you feel supported? Loved? Or criticized? Thinking about how you motivate others can also be helpful. Imagine teaching a child to tie their shoe. Even if you become frustrated, you would likely continue to use words that reflect kindness and patience.

Learning to quiet your inner critic and instead offer a compassionate inner ally can be difficult. Here are some ways to start:

  • Start to observe the tone of your inner voice.
  • When you notice the inner critic become louder, take a moment to breathe deeply or place a hand on your heart.
  • Listen to a guided meditation on loving kindness.
  • During times of your own distress, imagine what you might say to a friend in a similar position.
  • Notice all the areas of your life where you are already practicing compassion (as a friend, parent, family member, etc).

Jackie Henry, PsyD

Jackie Henry, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice specializing in the evidence-based treatment of anxiety disorders and mood symptoms related to life transitions in Inver Grove Heights, MN.