A Quick Guide to Self-Compassion

Do you need more self-compassion but aren't sure where to start?

Posted Oct 05, 2020

Yerlin Matu/Unsplash
Need self-compassion?
Source: Yerlin Matu/Unsplash

One very snowy January day a few years ago, my kids and I arrived home with a 3-year-old rescue cat. As instructed, we brought him into the bathroom before opening up the cardboard carrier we'd been given to bring him home from the shelter. The idea was to let him get used to us and our home slowly, without overwhelming him by dropping him into the middle of the living room, surrounded by new things and new people. 

The cat jumped out of the carrier and crawled underneath the small bathroom vanity. He then climbed into the bottom drawer, on top of the bath towels, which he could access from behind the sink. And he stayed right there. For six weeks.

During those weeks, we would all take turns sitting in the tiny bathroom, back against the tub, legs squished between the vanity and the toilet and talk to the cat, pet the cat, just be with the cat. We were hoping that he'd relax and come out of the bathroom once he was used to us. My son would sit in the bathroom with a book, reading and absentmindedly stroking the cat. My daughter would bring in her little figurines and make up stories for the cat on the edge of the bathtub. I'd even come home to see my cat-resistant husband's legs stretched out from the bathroom into the hallway and hear him consoling this terrified creature. 

We didn't berate the cat for his fear, we didn't despair that the cat would never be integrated into our household (although we were a little worried), nor did we promise the cat that if he just came out of the drawer, everything would be fantastic. We only offered him, though our presence, compassion.

Many of us have experienced comforting a dog during a thunderstorm or a small child startled by a fireworks display. We intuitively know how to do this—stay with the child, connect physically in a comforting way, and speak reassuringly. 

As adults, we have a lot of reluctance to offering this type of kindness to ourselves. We instead judge ourselves for being upset and lambaste ourselves for how we're feeling. Or we might deny that we need to be comforted and instead distract ourselves, and try to ignore how we're feeling. 

When new parents are worried that their babies will never fall asleep by themselves, pediatricians talk about the need for the baby to learn to "self-soothe." Many adults need to learn to self-soothe, too.

When I suggest to clients they extend themselves compassion and presence instead of abuse and denial, there's a lot of resistance. They worry that being self-compassionate somehow lets themselves off the hook and leads to mediocrity and mistakes. Many of us believe that beating ourselves up emotionally leads to high performance and great results.

There is zero evidence that this is true.

I'd argue that we succeed despite this abuse, not because of it, and that you can be self-compassionate and still have high standards. More to the point, how do you want to go through your life? With your most vicious critic living in your head?

Instead, next time you are struggling, first try comforting yourself with the following exercise: 

  • Put your hand on your chest and breath into your hand until you feel your body start to calm.
  • Say something to yourself that is kind and simple, like, "You're OK." Or "This is so painful, but you can make it through." Repeat this as long as it feels right to you.
  • Ask yourself, "What might help right now?" Ninety-nine percent of the time, reaching out to a loved one does help. Other reliable helpers are fresh air, exercise, lying down for 20 minutes, or even taking on some small, manageable organizational/cleaning task.                                             

Once you've slowed down and attended to yourself, you can move on to necessary action. This might be hard stuff: an apology, starting a project over, or standing up for yourself. But now you'll come at it from a place of calm and self-forgiveness.

Sadly, the cat never came out of the bathroom. Just kidding.

After about three weeks, he tentatively ventured out into the living room and has been entirely in the mix of our lives ever since. Now he soothes us.