How often do you berate yourself for a mistake? Remind yourself of your shortcomings? Verbally kick yourself when you’re already down?
We can all be hard on ourselves from time to time. In fact, many believe that being self-critical is a good thing, helping push them to achieve their goals. However studies suggest that a far healthier (and ultimately more productive) alternative to piling on the critical self-talk is to respond to ourselves with self-compassion. Though the term may sound self-indulgent or seem to suggest weakness, self-compassion can actually enhance our ability to learn from our mistakes and bounce back from adversity. Self-compassionate people have less fear of failure, and when they do fail, they are more likely to try again.
The basic premise of self-compassion is treating yourself the way you would a good friend. That means being more mindful and understanding of your situation, recognizing that you’re human, after all.
Imagine your friend calls you in tears and says they just got laid off. They hadn’t been at the company long but were passionate about the work. They’re feeling distraught and deflated and you respond by saying:
“I’m not sure why you’re so upset. Of course you were let go. They had to cut the weakest link and the other people on your team are vastly more talented. I was surprised when they hired you in the first place. You might as well give up the idea of working in that industry since you clearly don’t have what it takes.”
Would you ever in a million years respond to your friend this way? Of course not. Yet this is the type of harsh thing we might say to ourselves in this situation.
Let’s rewind and try again with a mindset of compassion:
“I’m so sorry, that’s really upsetting news. I know how much that job meant to you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to support you during this challenging time. And please know that I’m always here for you.”
Self-compassion provides several access points for reducing self-criticism. Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on the subject, defines it as involving three core elements:
- Mindfulness: Observing your negative emotions without exaggerating them or trying to suppress them.
- Common Humanity: Acknowledging that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience.
- Self-Kindness: Replacing harsh self-criticism with patience, grace, and understanding.
We all experience feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, heartache, and worthlessness. By accepting that these feelings are part of what it means to be human and to be alive, we can respond to our pain with more compassion and self-acceptance. Letting the feelings just exist, seeing them as healthy signals of your humanness, and responding to them with kindness all create a broader perspective and allow you room for greater resilience, wisdom, and growth.
Research continues to uncover a wide range of social, psychological, and health benefits to self-compassion including greater happiness, life satisfaction and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression.
Self-compassion is associated with the release of oxytocin (often referred to as the “love hormone”), which reduces our distress and increases feelings of safety and security. Research by psychologist Paul Gilbert suggests that when we practice self-compassion, we are deactivating our innate threat response and stimulating our instinct for caring instead, which can help us relax and problem solve more effectively.
If you’d like to give it a try, here’s a simple Self-Compassion Break exercise developed by Dr. Kristin Neff.
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult or causing you stress. Bring that situation to mind and see if you can feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body. Really embody those sensations.
Now say to yourself:
- This is a moment of suffering. This is mindfulness. You’re simply observing your negative emotions without exaggerating them or trying to suppress them.
- Suffering is a part of life. You’re reminding yourself that you’re not alone; that we all struggle in our lives.
Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth and gentle touch of your hands on your chest. And say to yourself:
- May I be kind to myself. Or consider what other message you can voice right now in order to express kindness to yourself. For example: May I learn to accept myself as I am, May I be strong, May I be patient, May I forgive myself. Think of what would help you feel most supported.
This is a practice we can keep returning to in order to nurture and support ourselves in moments of struggle. As meditation expert Sharon Salzberg says, “Self-compassion is like a muscle. The more we practice flexing it, especially when life doesn’t go exactly according to plan (a frequent scenario for most of us), the stronger and more resilient our compassion muscle becomes.”