Do you know that inner voice that uninvitedly comments and criticizes everything you do? That’s ‘the inner critic’, and most of us are intimately familiar with it. There is another voice that we can listen to instead: a softer and kinder voice that encourages you and speaks to you with respect and acceptance. It’s the voice of your ‘compassionate self’. It’s a natural part of your human makeup, but perhaps you’ve tuned it out for so long that you forgot it even exists. The good news is, we can train our minds to focus more on self-compassion by prioritizing kindness over criticism, and acceptance over judgment.
Self-compassion is an essential tool for psychological well-being. It’s a set of skills, perspectives and habits that allow us to build a healthy relationship to ourselves. We are often taught how to be compassionate towards others, but rarely how to be compassionate with ourselves. Self-compassion is the antidote to procrastination, a loud inner critic or if you struggle with feeling shame. In this blog post, we will explore what self-compassion is and how to practise it in everyday life.
What is self-compassion?
When I introduce the concept of self-compassion to clients, many people respond to it with hesitation. Self-compassion is often linked to laziness or giving yourself a pass; it is sometimes seen as an unnecessary luxury that gets in the way of a busy life. I’d like to offer another definition of self-compassion:
“A respectful and kind relationship to yourself.”
Self-compassion has been researched by social scientists especially in the past two decades. For example, by Dr. Kristin Neff, who defines the three building blocks of self-compassion in the following way:
“Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism … Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone … It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.” (self-compassion.org)
Paul Gilbert offers a similar definition of compassion:
“a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it” (Gilbert, 2009, p. xiii)
Contrary to popular belief, self-compassion leads to heightened motivation and productivity in most people, and reduces behaviours such as procrastination and avoidance. Even more importantly, it just feels good.
How to get started with self-compassion?
One of the best ways to start practising self-compassion is by noticing how you speak to yourself and about yourself, and then re-phrasing those words into self-compassionate language. This can be done silently in your thoughts, or by speaking out loud (if your inner critic is very loud, it’s helpful to make your self-compassionate voice loud, too, so that you hear it over all that other noise). Another way to practise compassionate self-dialogue is through journaling. Pay attention to the words that you choose as well as the tone.
Think about how you speak to your friends and colleagues. I’m guessing that most of the time, you don’t speak to others in the voice of the inner critic. What we often don’t realize is that our self-dialogue (how we speak to ourselves in our thoughts) matters a lot. Our thoughts – especially the thoughts we have about ourselves – affect our self-esteem, mood, and stress tolerance. While we can’t control what thoughts enter our mind, we can change the track of our thoughts by saying a compassionate sentence instead.
Here’s an example of how you can reframe your self-dialogue:
“I can’t believe I just made that mistake at work, I’m such an idiot! Everything will fall apart because of my stupidity.” (This is an example of self-blame, name calling, and unhelpful criticism.)
When you catch a thought like this, you can stop your inner critic, and tune into your self-compassionate part instead, like this:
“Hey inner critic, back off! Let’s take a pause. Ok, that mistake wasn’t ideal, but it happened. Can I do something to repair the situation right now? If not, what can I learn from this incident? It’s ok to feel shame. Looking at the bigger picture though, it’s doesn’t really matter that much. A year from now, I’ll just laugh about it. I could talk about this to trusted friends, maybe they’ve experienced something similar in their lives. I don’t need to deal with this alone…”
The more you practise compassionate self-talk, the easier it gets. If you have difficulty finding the right words, imagine what you would say to a friend or to a child who feels insecure.
Another way to practise self-compassion is through new behaviours and habits. Simply ask yourself: how would someone who loves themselves act in this situation? Self-compassion looks different in different situations: Sometimes, it looks like eating chocolate and allowing yourself to enjoy TV. Other times it looks like having healthy routines, a diet that supports your wellbeing, and doing exercise even when you don’t feel like it. A good rule of thumb is that moderation is healthier than any extreme behaviour. Eg. Exercise is healthy, but if you get too obsessive or controlling about, it becomes a problem rather than something beneficial.
Self-compassion can look like saying ‘no’ when you are out of resources, scheduling time for self-care and fun, and communicating assertively. It’s also about checking in with yourself often and asking: what are my needs right now? What are my priorities today? As always when it comes to psychological health, small, daily steps in the right direction lead to big changes.
I hope this post has inspired you to explore self-compassion in your own life. Therapy is a great way to develop self-compassion. In addition to therapy, there are many other resources that you can utilize. Here are a few suggestions:
- The Self Compassion App
- Websites: self-compassion.org
- Meditations: Tara Brach (offers free meditations on Youtube)
- Podcasts: Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown (not specifically about self-compassion, but interesting conversations about mental health from a compassionate perspective.)
If you’d like to join me in a group setting, I will also be leading a group session in the upcoming weeks on this very topic. To stay up to date on Compass Psychology’s group therapy sessions, follow us on Facebook (see Events for each session) or Instagram.
- Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London, UK.
- Saulsman, L., Campbell, B., & Sng, A. (2017). Building Self-Compassion: From Self-Criticism to Self-Kindness. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.
- Definition and Three Elements of Self Compassion: Kristin Neff. URL: https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/ . Accessed: May 16th, 2023.