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The Best Thing You Can Do for Yourself This Month

Stress is inevitable. Your response is not.

There are gifts to buy and wrap—and that’s after you wrestle gift ideas out of people in the first place. (Seriously, “There’s nothing I really need,” is not helpful.) There are cards to buy, address, and send. There are cookies to bake, a house to clean, and even more work if you have small children and have gotten on the Elf on a Shelf bandwagon. Add to all that the desire to enjoy all of the indulgences of the season without going bankrupt or putting on 25 pounds, and you have the recipe for a lot of overwhelmed people.

Given the amount of stress we all deal with each holiday season, I thought that it would be timely to share ideas for giving yourself a bit of a break this year. Most of my posts focus on navigating close relationships, but taking care of yourself as an individual is just as important—and likely to positively influence your relationships as well. Some seasonal stress can’t be helped; there will always be things that need to get done. What we should all to do, however, is to try to treat ourselves with compassion during this crazy time.

Self-compassion has become a bit of a hot topic in psychology over the past decade. It's viewed as positive emotional experience that entails seeing your experiences in life in terms of the common human experience and acknowledging that stress, failure, and inadequacy are all part of the human condition, and that all people are worthy of compassion (Neff, 2003a, 2003b). Faced with the stress of dealing with a personal failure, the process of self-compassion consists of three distinct components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness:

  • You exhibit self-kindness when you extend a sense of understanding, rather than criticism, toward yourself even when faced with stressors or personal failings.
  • Common humanity refers to the knowledge that your experiences are similar to those of others.
  • Mindfulness refers to the ability to be aware of unpleasant thoughts and feelings without being consumed by them (Neff, 2003a).

Neff (2003a) argues that these three components are unique states and that they should interact to mutually enhance one another. For example, mindfulness is needed to allow enough mental distance from a negative experience so that feelings of self-kindness and common humanity can arise. Similarly, remembering that personal failures happen to all people helps put one’s experience into perspective, enhancing the ability to be mindful of one’s thoughts and emotions while not over-identifying with them.

Recent research suggests that self-compassion is a predictor of psychological health; higher levels of it have been associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, fear of failure, and egocentrism—as well as positive states such as greater life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, and social connectedness (Yarnell & Neff, 2012). Self-compassion may also be related to psychological functioning in terms of the clarity and accuracy with which it allows you to look at yourself. As a self-compassionate person, you do not have to mask your shortcomings from yourself in order to feel good about yourself—your shortcomings are just part of what makes you you.

Even though being self-compassionate requires that you not harshly criticize yourself for being imperfect, it does not mean that your failings go without notice or corrective action. In fact, self-compassion is associated with taking responsibility for past mistakes (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007). It encourages and facilitates the actions needed for self-improvement with patience and kindness.

My charge to you: Practice self-compassion this season. If you’re late getting holiday cards out, or you forget a gift, or you know that one more night of Elf on the Shelf will drive you nuts, remember: We’re all in this seasonal boat together. Be kind to yourself in the face of that stressful “one last present” errand. And be mindful that the spirit of the season really is a joyful one, and so the stress should not be allowed to overwhelm you.

Happy Holidays and a fantastic New Year to all!

Leary, M., Tate, E., Adams, C., Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887 - 904.

Neff, K. (2003a). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85 - 101.

Neff, K. (2003b). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223 - 250.

Yarnell, L. & Neff, K. (2012). Self-compassion, interpersonal conflict resolutions, and well-being. Self and Identity, 12, 1-14.