Why Self-Compassion Is the Key to Living the Life You Want

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” ~Carl Rogers

When was the last time you stopped trying to improve something about yourself or your life?

I’ve spent a lot of my life chasing goals. I guess it goes with the territory as a cancer survivor who always felt like she had something to prove, even twenty years later.

For everything the doctors told me I could not do because of my Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (or as a result of the chemotherapy that healed me), I gave my all to accomplish and strive until I’d shown them they were wrong.

Can’t run a marathon because you’ve incurred lung damage? “You can do anything you set your mind to” was my mantra to run not just one, but five marathons.

Except that guess what? I was not just a goal setter. I was a perpetually unsatisfied goal setter. No matter what I did, or how much I told myself I was engaging in “healthy striving” as Brené Brown writes, it was never enough.

I thought that I’d put my goal-setting ways behind me when I found my yoga practice and tried learning to surf.

These adventures propelled me into a level of inquiry and a journey to find clarity and purpose with determination instead of expectation. It was about the big and little moments, I told myself. The learning, the feedback, the process—dropping attachments to live with more intention.

In many ways it made sense. I spent eighteen months trying to rid myself of cancer. I was so supremely focused on the final destination of going into remission and then being cured that it seemed superfluous to notice anything that happened along the way. It finally occurred to me that I’d lived most of my life in denial instead of in acceptance—always trying to forge ahead instead of face the present moment.

But guess what? As much as I tried to walk the walk, there was still a subtle, underlying thread of needing to improve that ran through my veins.

Even my yoga—the practice that I equate to the ultimate masterclass in acceptance—was driven by subliminal expectations.

Take, for instance, my heart-centered intention to strengthen my (non-existent) inversion practice. I told myself that flying upside down symbolized me being able to support myself. I’d labeled it as an intention, but the more I worked on it, the more I realized my focus that was cloaked by a belief that my core was too weak to magically levitate into a headstand or a “simple” arm balance. One goal (hidden in an intention costume), had veered stealthily into a scarcity mindset.

And once that mindset takes hold, it spreads quickly and without discrimination into a constant echo of pervasive thoughts.

I’d tried (many times) to use the mantra “I am exactly where I need to be in this moment.” On my yoga mat, in my work, and in my relationships. But nothing worked to help me flip the switch away from the gaps in my success and towards the celebration of the present moment and progress.

And then summer happened.

I had time in my schedule and I started to wonder, maybe I am supposed to use this season of my life to practice acceptance. Maybe all of my free-time isn’t a judgment or an indicator of lack of progress but is an opportunity to nourish and nourish myself.

What if instead of wanting to be something that I wasn’t, I actually needed to nurture my practice (and life) with more tenderness? Could I be grateful and give myself permission to find nourishment instead of judgment?

A friend encapsulated my thinking. She remarked simply: It sounds as if you are noticing self-compassion instead of self-improvement.

Wow. Yes. That was it!

What if acceptance, transformation, and progress have nothing to do with self-improvement?

What if true acceptance of the present moment and long-term transformation were actually powered by the process of nurturing myself with the nourishment of love and kindness?

“Build inner strength instead of outer dependencies.” ~Danielle LaPorte

Suddenly these words and ideas started to appear everywhere. Each of these messages or examples reminded me of what happens when you nurture the parts of you that matter most and nourish my your spirit with what feels delicious. The universe was sending me nudge after nudge—it was up to me to notice and pay attention.

Yes, I meditated daily. Yes, I was writing my morning pages each day. Yes, I was starting each work day thinking about how I wanted to feel when I went to sleep at night. But was I actively and intentionally nurturing the deeper layers of me with nourishment that was aligned to my values and dharma?

So often we think about compassion as something we need to have for others, but what about ourselves? I’m good at taking care of everyone else, but somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten that my heart and soul needed the same gift of understanding and compassion—and that I was the only one that could supply the unique medicine it needed.

What if the magic to creating the change you want in your life is less about self-improvement and more about self-compassion?

Now, don’t get me wrong. We all have desires. Those are not going away (nor should they).

But desire should not be our compass for daily life. Our values and life’s purpose are vastly more powerful navigational tools.

So if not desire or self-improvement, then what?

Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to go to bed tonight believing that you’d nourished and nurtured your mind, body, and spirit with the simple acknowledgment that you are exactly where you need to be in this moment.

How would your day be different if you gave yourself permission to be as you are, replacing judgment or labels with awareness and presence?

A funny thing happened when I started to make nurturing and nourishment my focus.

I made food choices with intention and then noticed how I felt afterward.

I chose tender yoga practices instead of heat-building ones.

I trusted that I was actively planting seeds each day to cultivate connection and relationships rather than waiting for opportunities to present themselves.

I considered the open times in my schedule as opportunities to play with my daughter and puppy instead of criticizing myself.

I chose to read instead of watch television. My to-do lists became less cluttered and more aligned with my values.

Ideas started to flow more freely. My stillness practice felt deeper. I noticed sounds, colors, and scents with more boldness.

And most importantly? I felt hope inside of me and remembered that everything I’ve ever thought I “needed” was already inside me, just waiting to be revealed.

4 Steps to Practice Nurturing and Nourishing Yourself with Self-Compassion

1. Tune into your awareness. 

No, I’m not going to add to the number of articles that you’ve read that says you need to meditate. But deepening your connection to yourself means becoming aware of the physical sensations and emotions that you feel each day instead of letting the millions of thoughts that travel through your mind each day take over.

It can be as simple as pausing at the end of a task or activity. Notice how your body feels without rushing to label what you are sensing as good or bad. This might take practice, and it might be subtle at first. Invite your body to be a benevolent messenger of information even for sensations that feel less than delicious.

2. Ask yourself: What is going right in this moment? 

This gratitude practice helps you move from noticing the gaps toward the celebration of wins big and small.

When I went surfing recently, our instructor encouraged us to make a big first pump after every wave we “caught” regardless of how long we rode the wave of energy or whether we stayed on our belly or popped up. Noticing the victories—no matter the size or magnitude—sends a message that the journey is more important than the final destination.

3. Check in with your truth: Is your day full of “have to’s” or “want to’s”?

This is a big one. Making a list of priorities and things to do can be a great tool to stay focused, except when everything on that list is out of alignment with your values.

Sure, there are some things in life that just have to get done. Maybe you can ask for help with tasks that bring up intuitive flags, or maybe you can find some aspect of the task to get excited about and change the perspective. Or maybe, you can simply let that task go.

Recently, a friend asked me if I’d be at one of our favorite power vinyasa classes. As much as I wanted to see my friend, I noticed a gentle tug in my heart and I took a moment to get quiet and check in with my truth.

That class felt like a should, based on a belief that I needed to keep up with the practice that I’d depended on to build physical and mental strength. But what I was really craving was something quieter. Something that would nourish that which was hidden. A yin practice. So I said no and cherished a nurturing and nourishing home practice, knowing that I could make plans to see my friend another time.

4. Make a list of what feels delicious to your heart, mind, and body and then let yourself PLAY. 

Do you love coffee? Find a lovely new cafe for a midday treat.

Does paddleboarding light you up? Rent one or take a class.

Play—even quiet activities like going for an evening walk, taking a bath, or spending an evening reading—nourishes the heart and mind. In fact, play helps inspire creativity and often makes us more productive, even when we’ve taken time off to engage in the activity.

Can it really be that easy? Four steps to cultivate self-compassion as the ultimate tool for living the life you really crave?

Well, no. These practices are never easy. It is a practice for a reason, mainly that it takes daily effort. But believing that you have everything you need already inside you offers a transformational opportunity to nurture, nourish, and accept the reflection that you see in the mirror as this moment’s best version of you.

About Elena Sonnino

Elena Sonnino is a life coach and speaker. She guides women who struggle with not-enoughness to see themselves with curiosity, vulnerability, and self-love. Her superpower is to be the mirror that helps you tap into your inner guidance and light up your own world. Learn more about Elena’s work and download a free guided meditation to tend to your inner garden.

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