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  • Writer's pictureErika Shershun, MA, MFT

Cultivating Self-Compassion

Have you ever been down on yourself? Perhaps you are your own harshest critic? Have you rejected your feelings and emotions? Of course you have, the majority of us are hardest on ourselves. We know how to, and are even good at being compassionate to our friends in their times of need, but often we don't know how to give kindness to ourselves. Fortunately we can learn to be inwardly kinder as we cultivate self-compassion.

According to Kristin Neff, PhD, the number one reason people are reluctant to be more self-compassionate is fear of becoming self-indulgent. They have culturally gotten the misguided message that self-criticism is what keeps them in line and helps them to succeed. Yet research shows the benefits of practicing self-compassion to be lower levels of depression, anxiety, stress and shame, with an increase in happiness, life satisfaction, self-confidence and overall health.

Self-compassion is never about pity, perfection or narcissism, instead fostering acceptance, awareness, accountability and growth. When we recognize our intrinsic value we relax and settle into ourselves, it is an antidote to the collapsed posture and freeze of shame.

"It's not your job to like me - it's mine" - Byron Katie

Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion does not relate to our performance or some arbitrary measure of success. We tend to beat ourselves up for our failures, yet everyone has failures, its part of how we learn and evolve. By age 13 we learn more from our failures than from our successes. There are schools that have started a practice of replacing the grade F with "not yet" to help alleviate the blow to self-esteem and performance that can accompany failure. It is in fact unhealthy to base our self-worth or sense of value on self-esteem.

Mindful Self-Compassion

For over 20 years Neff has been a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research. I highly recommend her self-compassion quiz (it's quick and painless). Neff partnered with Christopher Germer, PhD, to create a training program, Mindful Self-Compassion taught throughout the world, and most recently released The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook.

Neff and Germer teach that it is essential for us to embrace our suffering with kindness, and to recognize that failure, imperfection, and suffering are part of our shared humanity. They have identified three elements of self-compassion: Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment, Common humanity vs. Isolation, and Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. The following practice incorporates all three and is adapted from their teachings.

Self-compassion Practice

Find a place to sit comfortably, take a few relaxed full breaths and center yourself.

Think of a recent self-critical thought. Choose one that is not too triggering or upsetting, but something you've judged yourself for. It might be along the lines of, "I shouldn't have said that", "how could I have been so___", or "why is this happening to me".

1. Let the phrase "this is a moment of suffering" drop into your awareness. This is Neff and Germer's phrase to bring in mindfulness by turning toward your suffering. If this phrase does not resonate for you than choose one that does. Some options are "this is really hard", "this truly sucks", or "I'm going through a tough time".

2. Now bring the phrase "remembering that suffering is a part of life" into your awareness. This is a reminder of our common humanity. Again you can find other phrases that fit for you such as, "other people are experiencing similar struggles" or "it's natural to have experiences like this".

3. Finally, bring in kindness toward yourself with gentle touch, and words of support, tenderness, and care. The touch is important as it signals your body/mind that you are safe (when we criticize ourselves our body looses sight of that fact), and this in turn calms you.

For touch you can try placing your hands on your heart, your abdomen, cradling your face, or giving yourself a hug. Notice how your body feels as you try each, usually one or two will feel especially soothing. You might also try one hand on your heart with the other on your forehead or abdomen, and when others are present you can gently clasp your hands to practice without drawing attention to yourself.

If you're struggling to find words of support think of what you would say to someone you love who was going through the same situation, or the tender things you would say to a young child in distress, "your not alone, I'm here for you", "that must have been really hard, it will get easier" or "you are loved".

If you have difficulty taking in the compassion, go through the steps again bringing compassion in for whatever thought is preventing you from taking it in. Germer and Neff refer to this as back draft,

"The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." - Joseph Cambell

In the The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook Germer and Neff write of the Yin and Yang of self-compassion, the balance of masculine and feminine attributes. "The yin of self-compassion contains the attributes of 'being with' ourselves in a compassionate way - comforting, soothing, validating ourselves. The yang of self-compassion is about 'acting in the world' - protecting, providing, and motivating ourselves." Ask yourself, "what kind of compassion do I need now?" You'll engage self-compassion just by asking the question.

We cultivate self-compassion by learning to stop and catch our thoughts when we begin to turn against ourselves. It's an ongoing practice that generates self-acceptance, appreciation, confidence and wellbeing. Practicing self-compassion creates a foundation of warmth where kindness to oneself and others can blossom.

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