Practicing Self-Compassion

As a recovering perfectionist, I am intimately familiar with my inner critic and what it feels like to be hard on myself. I know I am not alone in this. Being kind and compassionate to ourselves just the way we are seems to be very difficult for many people. Fortunately, it is possible to make changes in the way we treat ourselves. In my own life, through mindfulness practices and psychotherapy, particularly Internal Family Systems therapy, I have learned to practice self-compassion and have felt liberated and transformed though the process. I still have regular encounters with my inner critic, but our relationship has shifted tremendously. I now understand that my inner critic is always trying to serve me and have negotiated more effective ways for that part of me to help. I have also found other ways to be kind to myself. And, cliché as it may be, I truly have much more to offer others when I am compassionate and kind to myself. Below are a few of the practices that I find helpful in the journey towards self-compassion.

Recognize. The first step is becoming aware of our pain and suffering. So much of the time, we are so disconnected from our emotions and inner experiences that we don’t even recognize the pain we are walking around with. Our unconscious pain may manifest as snapping at our loved ones, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, or numbing out with internet, food, or alcohol. When we get stuck in self-criticism, self-loathing, or shame, it can be hard to see outside of that suffering. But as soon as we recognize we are in pain, we can do something about it.

Create space. If we can take time for a conscious pause and some conscious breathing, that can help create space inside and create a bit of distance around this part of us that is suffering and our bigger Self, who we really are. In Internal Family Systems, we talk about asking that suffering part to “unblend” or “separate” a bit from us, so we can see the whole of ourselves with more clarity.

Use the breath. We can use our breath as a tool to convey self-compassion. Imagine your breath carrying loving-kindness to your suffering. Let your inner parts feel the calmness that comes from breathing deep, slow breaths.

Touch. When we are suffering, we can give ourselves some soothing touch—put our hand on our heart or rub our own arm, just as we might soothe a suffering child. This simple act can be quite powerful. Our touch alone can convey so much care and compassion. As mammals, our nervous system is designed to respond positively to warm, soothing touch, even if it comes from our Self.

Talk to yourself. It may seem strange at first, but we can practice extending loving words of support and care to our suffering, just as we would talk to a child or close friend who was hurting. “I see that you’re really hurting. You’re really feeling a lot right now. And I’m here with you. I’m breathing here with you. Feel the calmness of the breath. Feel the love I am extending to you with the breath.”

Honoring inner needs. We can ask our pain, “What do you need from me right now?” Maybe this part of us needs a warm bath or permission to do nothing. Maybe some larger action is needed. Finding a way to respect and honor our inner needs is another act of self-care and compassion.

Going deeper. Often times, offering some self-soothing is enough. But sometimes more work is needed. Sometimes our inner parts have more they want us to understand about them. Journaling or talking to someone we trust about our thoughts and feelings can be a helpful way to explore our inner world.

Getting help. It is easy to get lost when navigating our inner world, and a skilled counselor can help guide us through this process. Psychotherapy is one of the best methods I know of to cultivate a sense of self-compassion.

Self-compassion is a practice that feeds on itself. The more we treat ourselves with kindness and care, the more we will want to continue doing so. However, changing our behavior is not easy. It’s helpful to be as gentle with ourselves as possible and know that we can always try again.

Kristin Neff: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion – TED Talk