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The Transformative Power of Self-Compassion

How to transform difficult emotions into moments of care.

Key points

  • Self-compassion is our desire to be free from suffering, and the motivation to alleviate it is a skill.
  • Compassion helps us to recognize that all humans share the wish to be free from suffering.
  • Painful experiences can be transformed into moments of self-compassion.
Healthy Minds Innovations
Stephanie Wagner
Healthy Minds Innovations

By Stephanie Wagner, NBC-HWC

The holiday season is often associated with joy and celebration, but it can also be a time of heightened stress, emotional reactivity, and even grief. Many of us want the holidays to be fun and festive. However, when we face the reality of loneliness or the overwhelming demands of the season, the pain of self-judgment, criticism, and perfectionism might arise.

What if I told you that the difficulties and painful emotions that we experience during the holidays can become moments of well-being? That the very difficulties that cause us pain can also help direct us back to compassion?

This is where the transformative power of self-compassion comes in.

Many contemplative traditions define self-compassion as our desire to be free from suffering and the motivation to alleviate it. We can look at everything that we do in our lives and see that, on a deeper level, we are motivated by the wish to be happy and free from suffering.

Trying to get all your holiday tasks done and feeling overwhelmed? That’s emerging from compassion. Feelings of grief and loneliness? This is also compassion. When we look at “why” we feel the way we do, compassion is right there. The problem is that we’re not connected to it.

If we all have compassion, why practice?

Although we are born with the capacity to be compassionate, it is like learning a language. Language won’t be expressed unless you learn it. Similarly, for compassion to be expressed, you need to practice it. The good news is that compassion can be strengthened, just like any other muscle. The research shows that training in compassion can promote emotional well-being1, positive emotions2, and prosocial behavior3.

Practicing compassion can be a doorway to experiencing well-being.

Transforming difficult emotions into compassion

Many of the situations that we encounter during the holidays can fuel perfectionism, self-judgment, and self-criticism. However, rather than trying to get rid of these feelings, we can use them as support to practice compassion. Just like the mythological stories that alchemists used to transform different metals into gold, we can use our emotions and challenges to transform them into compassion.

Here are a few ways to practice self-compassion during the holidays:

1. Use phrases of self-compassion. When you encounter a stressful holiday situation or have self-critical thoughts, notice how you respond. You will likely notice a desire to be free from the feeling or the situation. This impulse is compassion.

You can practice compassion, in that moment, by connecting to the wish to have ease and well-being through reciting a phrase or word silently in your mind. You can use any phrase that helps you connect, but you could try something like, “May I be free from self-judgment,” “May I be more gentle with myself,” or “May I be free from stress." You can do this in the midst of your day or you can practice more formally through using a guided meditation.

2. Send self-compassion through the breath. If the phrases don’t resonate with you, try to use the power of the imagination and the breath to send yourself compassion.

Breathing in, imagine that you are taking in the difficult emotion or holiday situation into your heart in the form of smoke or heavy fog. Visualize that you are removing all of the challenges that you are experiencing and watch it dissolve into your heart. Each time you breathe in, your challenge dissipates.

When you breathe out, send yourself well-wishes in the form of light. Each time you breathe out, your well-being increases as you send yourself kindness. Even if you feel like you don’t have time to send yourself compassion, remember to take a pause, inhale into where you feel tense, exhale, and offer yourself a compassionate thought.

Expand your compassion

One of the most powerful things about compassion is that we begin to recognize that we are not alone. Others struggle with the very things that we struggle with. Just like you, others want to have a peaceful holiday. Just like you, they want to be free from overwhelm, perfectionism, and conflict. Recognizing that you are not alone is a way to develop feelings of connection, despite the difficulties.

Using either the compassion phrases or the sending compassion practice, extend your compassion to everyone else in the world who is in a similar situation as you. Imagine that you are alleviating their difficulty and sending them happiness and joy. This is a way to create a meaningful connection to others.

In conclusion, each time you experience difficulty this holiday season, see if you can connect with the inner impulse to be free from it. Take a moment to pause and practice compassion for yourself and for others who are struggling just like you. Using either the phrases or the sending compassion practice, the very things that are painful can become the source of connecting with compassion–both to ourselves and others who are just like us.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1. Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(5), 1045.

2. Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2013). Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral cortex, 23(7), 1552-1561.

3. Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PloS one, 6(3), e17798.

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