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What It Really Means to Have Self-Compassion

Self-compassionate behavior is important, too.

Key points

  • Self-compassionate behavior can help prevent one from feeling overwhelmed.
  • Self-compassionate behavior sometimes involves pausing or slowing down, but not always.
  • Include some compassionate routines throughout the day and respond to stress with self-compassionate behavior.
Madison Lavern/Unsplash
Source: Madison Lavern/Unsplash

Self-compassion has been a popular topic in recent years, thanks to the wonderful research by Dr. Kristin Neff and others. However, when people talk about how to be more self-compassionate, the emphasis is often on how to talk to yourself kindly. But, self-compassion isn't just about changing your thinking and your self-talk. Self-compassionate behavior is important too.

Slowing down and pausing is part of self-compassion.

This week, I had my first mammogram. I was nervous about it, especially after a friend was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. My appointment was around noon, and I woke up feeling antsy. Even though I had a pile of to-dos, I decided to take it easy for the morning. I still got some work done, but I mostly read rather than powering through my list. I pottered. This felt self-compassionate.

Self-compassionate behavior can help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

My anxiety about the mammogram, plus all my usual to-dos, and whatever other stressors were going on, could've easily turned into feeling overwhelmed, but it didn't, because I engaged in self-compassionate behavior.

Life throws up many challenges. Mistakes happen. Things go wrong. And, anything we need to do that's new to us, takes energy.

People feel overwhelmed when they expect themselves to absorb all of those shockwaves without missing a beat. But, if you give yourself extra space to emotionally process challenges, it's less likely your feelings will morph into also feeling overwhelmed.

But, self-compassionate behavior isn't always doing less.

Sometimes the most self-compassionate thing to do is rest or slow down. But, it's not always. For example, I finished a piece of work today that I'd been putting off all week. Making myself do it today rather than letting it hang around over the weekend was the most self-compassionate choice.

I used compassionate self-talk to get past my urge to procrastinate.

Self-compassionate behavior isn't allowing yourself to ruminate.

It's not ideal to expect yourself to get through challenges without pausing. But, nor is it ideal to give in to the urge to ruminate or enter a worry spiral, and do nothing else.

As a general rule, when you need to slow down to be self-compassionate, expect yourself to do about 50% of what you normally would.

Accessing support is an important type of self-compassionate behavior.

Self-compassionate behavior often includes reaching out for support. There are many forms this could take. For example, asking a loved one for a hug or telling a friend or colleague what you're experiencing.

Sometimes seeking connection is enough.

My spouse and I homeschool our 5-year-old. Generally, my spouse takes care of mornings, but the morning of my mammogram, I printed out a bunch of fun coloring-based worksheets I could do with my daughter. That way, I could sit with her and help her with them. Even though she wasn't supporting me, sitting with her and enjoying her presence felt self-compassionate.

If you don't need support, sometimes you will still need or want connection.

What's most self-compassionate will vary depending on the circumstances.

Say you know that exercise boosts your mood, as it does for most of us. Sometimes, prioritizing getting out and exercising (ahead of other to-dos or lying around) will be the most self-compassionate choice. Other days, when you're feeling challenged or tired, allowing yourself the day off from exercise will be more self-compassionate. Learn to make these distinctions.

Self-compassionate routines can help.

One of my self-compassionate routines is what I've named "calling done on the day." It's the point in the evening when I decide I'm not doing any more tasks, even if they'll only take under a minute.

When you're trying to improve your self-compassion, don't forget about your behavior.

There are great resources for improving your self-compassionate thinking. These mostly focus on learning to talk to yourself kindly. Self-compassionate thinking also involves seeing difficult emotions as universal human experiences. A third element is learning how to balance not pushing your emotions away but not exaggerating or fueling them either.

When you're learning those skills, consider compassionate behavior alongside them. For example, mindfulness can include noticing when you've given yourself enough emotional space to absorb a challenge and now you're ready to be productive again.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

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