‘Unlike self-criticism, which asks if you are good enough, self-compassion asks what’s good for you?’

This reflection belongs to Kristin Neff, the pioneering self-compassion researcher and author. Much as self-compassion is a new concept in modern western psychology, in Buddhist philosophy it’s been existing for hundreds of years.

What is self-compassion?

So, what actually self-compassion is? It is a way you are responding to yourself – with care, kindness and understanding – in the same way you would treat your beloved friend. This kind relationship with yourself is especially important when you are experiencing pain or feeling self-critical. Self-compassion is an ability of accepting and understanding our imperfections, limitations, failures, unpleasant emotions and recognising our value and worth as a human being. According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion consists of 3 core components. Let’s have a closer look at them together.

The first component is Self-kindness – an ability to be gentle and understanding towards yourself. Self-kindness is an antidote to the critical and judgmental inner dialogue. Many of us tend to be tough on ourselves, very often much tougher than we are towards other people. Self-kindness is supported by the understanding that we are not always able to meet our expectations and high standards, that all human beings have both strengths and weaknesses, that we all make mistakes. Although we can’t control external circumstances and other’s behaviour, we can choose how to address what’s happening to us. We can choose which words, what tone of voice, what gestures to use towards ourselves when we are experiencing a difficulty – it can be caring, loving and soothing instead of harsh and critical. We can respond in the same way we would act when supporting our beloved friend. From neurobiological perspective experiencing warm and tender feelings and gestures toward ourselves can affect our bodies and our minds with the comforting boost of oxytocin (a natural hormone linked to increased levels of social bonding, well-being and anti- stressed effects).

The second component of self-compassion is Common Humanity. Practising self-compassion can become a healing antidote to feeling inadequate and isolated. When we make the shift from our inadequacy into what we have in common, we can feel less lonely and more connected, as we are not the only ones experiencing hurt, shame or anger or any other unpleasant emotion. We are not alone in struggling or failing. Suffering is a shared human experience and it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with us, it doesn’t make us less worthy or lovable.

The last component of self-compassion is Mindfulness – a practice of paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, and embracing our feelings, thoughts and sensations in our body with non-judgmental awareness, without criticizing, denying, avoiding them or being carried away by them. Instead, you can observe and notice your feelings and thoughts, make room for them, allow them to be just as they are and ask yourself how you would like comfort and care for yourself right now, or how you would like to respond. Our inner landscape is always changing, but the awareness of what is happening remains unchangeable and you can decide where to direct your attention. Practising bringing awareness to the present moment can be effective with reducing worry, anxiety or rumination, when our thoughts are running through the past or future events and possible scenarios. With mindfulness we can also become more aware of our repetitive patterns of thoughts/feelings/behaviours that are not serving us, which we would like to change.

Self-compassion and self-criticism

There is a common belief that criticizing ourselves can increase our sense of self-control, and therefore gives us a greater sense of security. We often believe that if we stop beating ourselves down, we may become lazy or demotivated and we will give up trying harder. The research shows something different – that caring for ourselves helps us to feel calm, secure, confident and actually increases our level of motivation, while self-criticism and self-punishment make us feel more stressed, anxious, insecure and can lead to reaching for self-handicapping strategies like procrastination or avoiding challenges. Using fear as a motivator can increase the level of anxiety and undermine our performance. Self-critical inner dialogue activates the threat system and our body’s stress response, while self-compassionate inner self-talk activates the care system that decreases stress hormones and helps us to self-regulate when we experience shame or pain.

Further benefits of cultivating self-compassion

We can reach for self-compassion to soften the way we react when we don’t perform as we wished to by cultivating supportive, reassuring, kind inner dialogue and reinforcing a belief that we are always worthy of kindness, care and respect and we are not defined by our failures or imperfections. By accepting the fact that sometimes we make mistakes and we act in the ways we regret, we can more easily see ourselves with greater honesty and make repairs in relationships. If we care about ourselves, we take an effort to do what serves our growth, we have more resources to nourish our bodies, minds and spirits, in extended perspective – our relationships and our planet. By practising self-compassion we can have more ease to step into new situations and challenges and we are also less prone to fall into destructive behaviours. And if we do, we do not judge ourselves for them. Research also shows that people with higher level of self-compassion have steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth regardless of external circumstances like social approval, competing successfully or feeling attractive.

How to start?

Due to our conditioning and past experiences, it might not be easy and straightforward to replace the harsh ‘inner critic’ with the supportive and compassionate ‘inner cheerleader’. If you feel self- critical a lot of time, you are not alone. The good news is that practising self-compassion is like training the muscle and we can learn to make it a habit. There are lots of different ways to develop self-compassion and incorporate it into your daily life.

If you would like to start practising, here are some proposition that you can explore for yourself:

Soothing Self-talk

Find a kind, soothing statement that you can say to yourself when you are experiencing some difficulty. It may be something you would say to your friend, or something that you would like to hear when you feel down, hurt or upset. Imagine what compassionate friend would tell you then. For example it may sound like ‘I am here right with you. I know it’s tough’ or ‘It’s okay to feel this way’, or ‘Everyone makes mistakes’.

Supportive Touch

Try putting your hand on your body during difficult, stressful moments throughout the day. You may gently put your hand or both of your hands on your heart/your chest and bring your attention to the gentle pressure and temperature of your hands, feel the rising and falling of your chest as you breathe in and as you breathe out. If heart/chest area doesn’t feel comfortable to you, you can explore where on your body gentle touch is actually soothing and comforting, like hand on your cheek, forehead, abdomen, or shoulder.

Mindful Activity

Pick one activity during a day in which you will be practising being mindful. It may be when you brush your teeth, drink your morning coffee, taking shower, while you go for a walk, or whenever you are queuing in a grocery store. As you’re engaging in your activity, bring your awareness to your experience in the present moment. Try to bring your awareness to as many aspects of the experience as possible, engaging all of your senses. If you become lost in your thoughts or emotions, simply note this and bring your awareness back to the experience.

If you are inspired and interested in this topic, you can visit the official website of Kristin Neff: https://self-compassion.org/ to find more information and self-compassion exercises.