The Power of Self-Compassion
We spend too much time beating ourselves up. Try this science-backed exercise!
Posted February 5, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Imagine a good friend of yours is sitting across the table from you. She is on the verge of tears because she was fired from her job today. It’s clear she could use some kind words of encouragement.
So you do what you always do in these situations. You adopt an aggressive tone and say something like: “Yea, well you shouldn’t have been so terrible at your job. Plus, you just plain suck at life.”
Whoa, I would never speak that way to a friend in need (you're probably thinking).
And that may be true...
But what about when you’re the person who just lost a job? Or when it’s you that just destroyed a carton of ice cream (and your diet)? How do you speak to yourself amidst failure and harsh times?
Well, studies suggest that you are probably far rougher on yourself than you are with friends. The research shows that many of us spend an astounding amount of energy beating ourselves up, saying things like “you’re terrible” and “why do you even try?”
Why do we do this to ourselves? Do we generally look to destructive people when we encounter sorrow, thinking that it will be helpful to get ruthlessly heckled? Does it bolster our resilience to cut ourselves down with harsh criticisms?
The answer is usually no, it’s not helpful. In fact, studies show that people who score higher in self-compassion tend to experience less depression, increased motivation, more optimism, greater happiness, and higher life satisfaction.
Far from just a bit of hippie-dippy new age feel-good-ery, self-compassion has been shown to improve health, wealth, and happiness. It’s a tremendous performance enhancer and strategy for achieving greater well-being.
So instead of beating ourselves up, let's give this self-compassion thing a try. It may just help propel us through those moments of self-doubt and difficulty on the road to success!
What Is Self-Compassion?
As a quick definition, it is helpful to think of self-compassion as extending understanding and encouragement to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.
But the scientific community has a more granular definition of self-compassion that contains three essential components. Practicing self-compassion requires these three elements:
1. Mindfulness - If we want to comfort ourselves and do better next time, we need to first acknowledge that we’re suffering or that we did something crappy. It’s OK to make mistakes and fail, but we need to face our feelings and behaviors if we want to improve.
Our minds can do some impressive gymnastics to repress pain or externalize blame for something we’ve done. Self-compassion encourages us to face ourselves in a less critical way, so we can really change for the better.
Management requires awareness, so mindfulness is a necessary component of practicing self-compassion.
2. Common humanity - This element is about acknowledging that everyone suffers. It may seem like everyone on Instagram is experiencing never-ending blissful moments, but most of it is a façade. Tough times are inherent to the human condition. Just look at how many famous people end up in rehab or how many “successful” people report feeling unfulfilled. We’re all imperfect beings and it’s ok to suffer at times.
It’s comforting to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our suffering and that we should not feel isolated by our imperfections.
3. Self-kindness - This aspect is about showing ourselves the same care that we show our friends. Instead of berating ourselves, we should treat ourselves like a cherished family member and we’ll already be moving in the direction of a more self-compassionate lifestyle.
So the next time we screw up, there may be a silver lining opportunity - to come to a full stop, become mindful of the pain, acknowledge that everyone is suffering in some way, and offer ourselves some loving kindness. Having a stalwart inner ally is a source of tremendous personal power. When we learn to harness that power, we propel our lives towards greater happiness and success.
Here is a self-compassion exercise used by professor Scott Barry Kaufman for the University of Pennsylvania Introduction to Positive Psychology course. In my year as a TA for this class, many students told me this ranked among the most valuable exercises from the class. It’s wonderful for developing more intentionality around how we treat ourselves. Give it a try!
- Bring to mind a recent difficult experience, or some kind of stress or suffering that is present in your life. Write a self-compassion letter to yourself, in the second person, about this experience, using the following guidelines.
- Allow yourself to remember the situation or think about your suffering. Then acknowledge your feelings or thoughts, as well as what you were hoping for and needing. E.g., “Dear Kelly, I know that you are feeling [sad/afraid/angry/disappointed in yourself, etc.]. You were really [looking forward to…/trying your best to…, etc.]” Write about both the stress and the core need underneath it: a desire for health, safety, love, appreciation, connection, achievement, etc.
- Offer a message of common humanity. [E.g., all humans make mistakes, fail, get angry, experience disappointment, know loss, etc. ].
- Now, mentor yourself with some compassionate advice or encouragement. What would you say to a loved one in this situation? Someone you believe in and wanted the best for? After writing the letter, consider reading it out loud to yourself, or putting it away for some time and bringing it out when you need self-compassion.
This letter-writing exercise has been shown to bolster happiness. When study participants wrote a self-compassionate letter to themselves for seven days in a row, they still experienced increased happiness six months later, when compared to a control group. (Shapira, et al, 2010).
So, how did it feel? Was the exercise easy? Are you feeling like a fountain of rainbows and sparkles? Wonderful! Was it difficult or did you feel silly at any point? Understandable—many do when they first give it a try. But the repetition of this exercise can be a powerful way to elevate your mood and help you improve your self-compassion. After a while, self-compassion will feel more natural and become a habit. Give it a try and see for yourself, you deserve it!