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Self-Compassion: Learning to Be Nicer to Ourselves

“Be gentle first with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others.” ~Lama Yeshe

Several months ago, I sat in a large workshop audience being led by Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research.

She directed us to divide up into pairs for a self-compassion exercise. I turned to the young woman next to me. We introduced ourselves and returned our attention to Kristin.

Following her instructions, my partner closed her eyes while I sat looking at her. Kristin led those of us with open eyes through a loving-kindness meditation that was directed at our partners.

Although I did not know this young woman, I could feel my heart open wide to her as compassion arose within me. I felt warm and loving toward her.

Then it was my turn to sit with closed eyes. As Kristin repeated the meditation and I felt my partner’s loving gaze on me, I started to hear a voice.

Not a psychotic one, mind you, but that familiar voice that so often takes up my internal space. It had started chatting quietly but zoomed to full volume within seconds.

“You don’t deserve compassion! You don’t make enough money! You snap at Andrea all the time! You just need to get yourself under control!”

Sigh. So much for self-compassion.

But that was the point.

After the exercise, Dr. Neff asked, “How many of you found it harder to feel compassion toward yourself than the stranger sitting next to you?”

Just about everyone in that huge group—including me—raised their hands.

What is Self-Compassion Really About?

When we feel compassion for others, we feel kindness toward them, empathy, and a desire to help reduce their suffering.

It’s the same when you are compassionate toward yourself. Self-compassion creates a caring space within you that is free of judgment—a place that sees your hurt and your failures and softens to allow those experiences with kindness and caring.

And yet, with all of the wonderful things that come along with being kind to ourselves, we find it hard to actually feel it.

Why? Why are we so lacking in self-compassion?

4 Mythical Beliefs about Self-Compassion

The deficiency in self-compassion is likely brought about by these four untrue thoughts:

1. I’m just indulging myself if I’m self-compassionate.

That’s what my inner voice wanted me to believe during the workshop exercise.

But I’ve learned something important that helps me with that little critic—the difference between self-indulgence and self-compassion.

Self-compassion involves your health and well-being. Self-indulgence is about getting anything and everything you want without thoughts of well-being.

Self-compassion is about becoming aware of and sitting with your pain. Self-indulgence numbs and denies your pain.

2. I won’t be motivated if I don’t criticize myself.

Somewhere, deep down, you and I might actually believe that we need that inner critic to keep us motivated in life; that without it, we too easily stray outside the lines.

And it’s also possible that the critic evolved to help keep us safe from harm.

But guess what? We don’t need it anymore. Being compassionate with ourselves allows for a much healthier, kinder motivation.

As Kristin Neff says, “While the motivational power of self-criticism comes from fear of self-punishment, the motivational power of self-compassion comes from the desire to be healthy, to reduce our suffering.”

3. It’s selfish for me to be compassionate toward myself.

Many people, women especially, are taught to put others ahead of themselves. Self-compassion can seem like the opposite of what you “should” be doing: taking care of others.

But how will beating yourself up help you be kinder to others? The source of our compassion will only be more authentic when we are able to show compassion to ourselves first.

4. Self-compassion is for wimps.

Put on your big girl panties and stop whining!

Man up!

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

Our society tends to reward toughing things out more than it does being kind and nurturing to yourself.

But the truth is that the strongest people are also the ones who can buck cultural norms and feel genuine compassion for themselves and their circumstances.

3 Ideas to Create Compassion for Yourself

Throughout the last ten years of her research, Kristin Neff has found three main ways to generate more compassion for yourself.

1. Be kind to yourself

The best way to think about being kind to yourself is to think about a friend.

Go ahead. Do it now. Visualize your best friend.

Now imagine she comes to you and says she is hurting because she was passed over for that promotion at work that she’s wanted for so long.

Would you say to her, “Well, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough. And you’re too mousy. You should have spoken up about wanting a promotion a long time ago.”

What? You wouldn’t say that to a friend? Would you say it to yourself?

It’s more likely that you would hug your friend and say, “Oh no! That’s terrible. I know how long you’ve been hoping to get that promotion. Come on, let’s go get some coffee and talk about it?”

You can be kind to yourself in this way, too. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering.

Just as you would hug your friend, soothe yourself as well. Put your hands over your heart or locate the spot in your body where your hurt is hiding and gently place both hands there.

Speak kindly to yourself. Call yourself by an endearing name.

“Oh, honey. I’m hurting because I wanted that promotion so badly. This is a really hard place to be in right now.”

2. Embrace your common humanity

Many times when you criticize or judge yourself, you feel isolated. It seems as though you are the only one in the world who has that particular flaw.

And yet, we are all imperfect. We all suffer. And so we are all connected by our shared humanity.

One of the wonderful outcomes of self-compassion is our enhanced sense of belonging, the feeling that we are all in this together.

The next time you are looking in the mirror and not liking what you see, remember that you are an integral part of a flawed, wonderful, wounded, miraculous human tribe.

3. Be mindful

How will you know that you are suffering if you are repressing your pain, rationalizing it, or busy with problem-solving?

You must allow awareness of your pain to enter in. Being mindful is about noticing what is happening in the moment and having no judgment about it.

Notice your hurt and just be with it, compassionately and with kindness.

And note that trying to make pain go away with self-compassion is just another way to repress pain and hurt. Self-compassion is about being with your suffering in a kind, loving way, not about making suffering disappear.

We will always have pain. But as Shinzen Young has noted: Suffering = Pain x Resistance. The more you resist your pain, perhaps by trying to make it go away, the more suffering you will experience.

Mindfulness allows you to stay with the pain without the resistance.

Near the end of the workshop, Kristin led us through one last exercise called “Soften, soothe, allow.” It combines all three of the components listed above to help generate self-compassion.

After thinking about a difficulty we have, Kristin directed us to find the place in our bodies that held our problem and then place our hands on it.

I placed both of my hands gently over my heart.

Then, we were encouraged just to be with our pain—not try to rid ourselves of it—and allow kindness and compassion to surround it.

As I sat meditating on something I have always considered to be a character flaw, tears arose under my closed eyelids and soon splashed down my face.

It was the first time I had ever felt kindness for myself about this very raw area rather than listening to my inner critic. The pain I felt was actually okay when held in this compassionate space, I didn’t need to be ashamed any longer.

The soft waves of compassion surrounding my heart had healed me of my shame.

I now choose self-compassion in my life, especially when that inner voice starts up.

Will you?

Photo by Kara Allyson

Avatar of Bobbi Emel

About Bobbi Emel

Psychotherapist Bobbi Emel specializes in helping people face life’s significant challenges and regain their resiliency. Download her free ebook, “Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs.” You can find her blog at http://www.TheBounceBlog.com and follow her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/bobbiemel) and Twitter (@BobbiEmel.).

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000638362807 Julie Lombardo

    very good post full of great ways to love oneself. thank you!

  • lv2terp

    BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you for sharing your experience!!! :)

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Thanks for your enthusiastic feedback!

  • Learning2Live

    Being compassionate to oneself is more difficult than being compassionate with someone else, because like you say, we tend to criticize and judge ourselves much quicker than others. However, the benefits of being kinder to yourself automatically filters through to others when you are extending that compassion, because you are fully aware and conscious of what being compassionate entails. I love all the little exercises you have mentioned here and will most definitely make it part of my daily routine. After all, one should be able to love, understand and accept oneself fully in order to authentically be able to do so with another.

  • http://twitter.com/asmallfield Dave Rowley

    Hi Bobbi,

    it sounds like a wonderful workshop!
    Theres’a part of me that really buys into the “self-compassion is indulgence’ excuse, and so I liked the way you illustrated the difference between the two by highlighting their relationship/non-relationship to ‘well being’. That was really helpful for me.

    ‘soften, soothe, allow’ sounds like a beautiful mantra to carry through the day.

    Thanks for the beautiful post.

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Hi Dave,

    Yes, that self-compassion vs. self-indulgence differentiation is really vital to becoming kinder to ourselves. I’m wondering, too, if it’s harder for men to be self-compassionate due to this “self-indulgence” myth? What do you think?

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Yes, you have it exactly right about compassion spreading to others when we are kind to ourselves.

    It’s interesting because Dr. Neff told us that the Buddha, in trying to get his followers to be more compassionate toward others, first had them practice compassion toward themselves because he knew that would be an easy task. Yet, in our culture, it’s just the opposite.

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Thanks, Julie!

  • daverowley

    Hi Bobbi,

    I really don’t know. Both men and women are pressured to put self care at a low priority–men through the prism of having to tough things out to be a ‘real man’, and women through the prism of caring for others at their own expense.
    I don’t believe self compassion goes against our nature, for either men or women, so it comes down to how we are able to poke holes in the stories that tell us to go against what is good for us.

  • Priska

    I found it very difficult to develop self compassion, it took a year of daily practice and I still struggle.
    I had the belief no pain, no gain. I also was a ‘positive thinker’, this might sound good but I’d developed the mindset that it was indulgent and weak to acknowledge difficulty or suffering.

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    I think self-compassion is a practice, Priska. Some days are just better than others.

  • http://twitter.com/Diamond_Dsign Diamond Dsign

    I’ve been trough a hard time, and I was blaming myself all the time, until I accepted myself as a friend and I started loving myself…
    Then I realize that I deserve to be happy for whatever mistakes I’ve made, because they made me the person I am today. And I’m very proud of me, because now I can recognize how is the way the things are supposed to be done.
    And I maybe sometimes I struggle but then I stand up and find the way to say to my heart that I am just giving the best I can in each situation.

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Diamond Dsign, you have encapsulated this entire idea so well in just a few lines. We all struggle, but so many of us are still stuck in blaming ourselves rather than being kind to ourselves as you have been. Bless you!

  • http://www.carlsbadvillageortho.com/ Carlsbad Village Orthodontist

    I agree, it is a lot harder to be kind to yourself, especially because you know what your head is thinking and all the in between thoughts and actions that are not particularly great. I guess, this is also a shared principle regarding making people happy, right? That it’s harder to make people happy if you, yourself is not.

  • http://happierhuman.com/ Amit Amin

    Self-compassion for the win!

  • Jane Robinson – Art Epicurean

    What a wonderful post. The workshop sounds amazing. I recently have been burdened about the conditions for women/girls around the world – to the point that I was feeling depressed and anxious. How can I help? Why is the world a dangerous place? Why isn’t the world outraged against the treatment of a whole population of humans? I am so blessed and the world is hurting. This post is timely because I breathe deep and meditated about self compassion

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    I share your concerns, Jane, and it is SO hard to bear the mistreatment of others sometimes. At times like that, I often repeat a loving-kindness (metta) mantra: May you be safe/May you be peaceful/May you be healthy/May you live at ease.

    I breathe out these sentiments to all those hurting souls.

    And then I say it for myself as well.

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Yay!

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Sort of, Orthodontist. I think it’s pretty hard to make people happy since it’s incumbent upon them to choose happiness, but it’s helpful to know oneself and be kind to oneself in order to be kind to others.

  • IncredibleZen

    Wow, Bobbi, great and thought provoking post.

    Most of us are incredibly self-critical, and expect higher standards in everything we do, but accept, empathize and embrace lower standards for everyone else.

    Although I can see the usefulness in having high personal standards, we also need to accept that many times we are going to fall short – and that’s okay.

    I’ve grown slightly less self-critical with age – but even so, I still here that little voice inside me that says ‘you’re not as good as ……’, ‘you don’t deserve……’.

    I think with this post you have opened up an awareness of our self-critical selves, which is a good lesson for us all to learn.

    Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.light.58 Stephen Light

    Beautiful, tahnks for sharing. Love & Courage. Stephen Light

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Thanks, Stephen!

  • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

    Thanks, IncredibleZen. I find the most helpful thing for me now when my inner critic starts up is to ask myself if I would speak to a friend like that. I’m learning to be a better friend to myself.

  • Tania Belkin

    Bobbi excellent post. This workshop sounds wonderful.

  • Carmella

    I’m going through a break-up where I have been thrown away by someone I love with all my heart. He threw me away for nothing…like I am nothing. And I do feel like nothing..if he doesn’t want to sacrifice anything to be with me eventhough he says he loves me..but still takes the easy way out…then he doesn’t deserve me. But still I keep swinging back and forth between knowing I’ll be ok in time..and I need to let myself feel the pain and be kind to the pain and then back to crying like a baby cus I feel soooo worthless and rejected like a piece of garbage..
    Heartache isn’t funny…But this article made me put my hands over my heart and say loudly “I know you’re hurting right now, and thats ok..you will feel better in time..and this will lead to something great for you”…and it helped…

  • lizacat

    I read a lot because I am in so much pain, and I “know” I “should” love myself…but knowing something intellectually and being able to do something about it are two different things. This article is the first one with some real concrete actions I can really try doing. At least that is a start.

  • pedro brito

    I hope you are able to do it, I was suffering the same way but now I’m free. There’s nothing wrong with loving yourself, it’s actually crucial to be the best you can be. (:

  • Elizabeth Rathbun

    I love this – thank you. It is so necessary. I am hopeful and thankful for this lovely written post and going to share! Best to you all – you deserve it!