Self-compassion is a way of relating to yourself that does not involve harshly judging or punishing yourself for every mistake you make, or every time someone does better than you. Research on self-compassion shows that it is associated with:

Kristin Neff, the pioneer of self-compassion research, describes it as follows: 

     “Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show to a good friend. When faced with difficult life struggles, or confronting personal mistakes, failures, and inadequacies, self-compassion responds with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment, recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.” (Neff & Dahm, 2015)

ShutterDivision/Shutterstock
Source: ShutterDivision/Shutterstock

The 3 Facets of Self-Compassion

Self-compassion has three separate but related aspects:

1. Mindfulness: Having an open, curious, non-judging attitude; not overidentifying with negative stories about the self.

2. Self-kindness: Treating yourself kindly, rather than harshly. Extending the same care and support to yourself that you would to a good friend or loved one.

3. Common humanity: Allowing yourself to be human, to make mistakes and learn from them. Knowing that as humans we are not perfect, nor should we be expected to act flawlessly.

In my clinical practice, I teach self-compassion to all of my clients, and I am always impressed by how much it can transform their relationship with themselves and promote healthier ways of living. Self-compassion is much more effective in changing behavior than trying to motivate yourself with shame and self-criticism. Shame and self-criticism lead to inner rebellion and giving up, while self-compassion gives you hope and helps you trust the process of change.

To become more self-compassionate yourself, try to follow these 7 steps:

1. Recognize that you are experiencing emotional distress or mental suffering.

Adopt a mindful attitude in which you deliberately pay attention to your inner experience so that you can notice when you are beginning to shift into a negative state. The minute you realize that you are thinking negative thoughts about yourself or feeling anxiety in your body, stop and say to yourself, "This is a difficult moment," or, "I’m feeling distress in my mind and body.”

2. Accept that the feeling is there.

Make a conscious decision to sit with whatever negative feeling is there and try to accept it — because it’s there anyway — rather than pushing it away. If it’s a negative thought, look for the underlying emotion (anxiety, sadness, or anger), or scan your body to see where you feel tension or discomfort. You may feel it in your chest, belly, shoulders, throat, face, jaw, or other areas.

3. Imagine what you might feel if you saw a loved one experiencing this feeling.

In your mind’s eye, imagine your loved one being scared or sad or feeling bad about themselves. Then think about what you might feel. Perhaps you would feel the urge to help or comfort them. Try to direct this compassionate mindset toward yourself. If you notice any resistance or thoughts of “I don’t deserve compassion,” acknowledge them, and try to direct compassion to yourself anyway. You may want to ask yourself why you think others deserve compassion but not you.

4. Challenge your negative story about yourself.

If you can't feel compassion for yourself because you feel undeserving or “bad,” try to think about this as an old story. Notice the old story of why you are bad. Now find a way to challenge this interpretation. If you acted in an unhealthy or irresponsible way, ask yourself if there were circumstances that influenced your behavior. Perhaps you experienced past trauma, or you were caught in a stressful situation. Now make a commitment to try to learn from the experience, rather than beat yourself up over it. Other ways to challenge the story are to ask yourself if you’re seeing things in black or white, if you’re being too judgmental, or if you’re seeing the situation from only one perspective. Are there other, kinder ways to view the situation? Are you expecting yourself to be perfect, rather than allowing yourself to be human?

5. Think about how everybody messes up sometimes.

It’s tempting to think that you are uniquely messed up, while everyone else is a paragon of virtue. In fact, even the most successful people make serious mistakes. Think about all the mistakes politicians make. But making a mistake doesn’t undo all of your accomplishments and successes. Neff cites “common humanity” as an aspect of self-compassion: Humans are learning, developing beings rather than finished products. We're all works in progress.

6. Decide what it would take to forgive yourself.

If your behavior hurt you or another person, ask yourself what it would take to forgive yourself. Think about whether you want to apologize and make amends to the person you hurt. If you hurt yourself through addictive behavior, avoidance, ruining relationships, or otherwise behaving unwisely, make a coping plan for the next time you are in a similar situation so that you can begin to act differently.

7. Use self-talk to encourage yourself.

You may say something like, “It doesn’t help to beat yourself up,” or, “Everybody makes mistakes sometimes.” You may want to acknowledge yourself for trying, even if you weren’t successful. You may tell yourself to focus on the positive aspects of what you did as well as the negative ones, or that behavior change is a process, and you need to keep trying.

8. Be a life coach to yourself.

Rather than punishing yourself with negative thoughts, gently guide yourself in a positive direction. You may ask yourself what led to the destructive behavior, whether it’s really what you want to be doing, and what the consequences are. Tell yourself that you have other choices, and it’s never too late to change. Then think about a concrete step you can take right away to move in a more positive direction or get up and try again. If someone else was mean and you let them get away with it, think about how you can set a limit or boundary to stop this from happening again.

Take a look at Melanie's new book, The Stress-Proof Brain, for more self-compassion tools and tips.

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Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, life coach, author, and national speaker. She practices in Mill Valley, CA, and online. Her expertise is in helping clients manage stress, anxiety, health, and relationships using mindfulness, self-care, and de-stressing tools supported by research.

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