At this time of year when we are consumed with giving to others, most of us don’t ever think about giving to ourselves. In our society, it’s often looked down upon to think much about yourself. When I talk about self-compassion, many say that they feel like it’s selfish to put themselves first or to be kind to themselves.
Dr. Kristen Neff, internationally known as the pioneering researcher in self-compassion, defines self-compassion simply as treating yourself the way you treat a good friend. Her research focuses primarily on how self-compassion can be used to reduce suffering. She and Dr. Chris Germer co-developed an 8 session intervention called Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), which is taught in 8-week and intensive 5 day courses around the world. They have done a randomized controlled study of this program, and found it to greatly improve psychological wellbeing.
I took an online version of this course, and found it to be so beneficial to my own mental health and wellness that I’ve added self-compassion to all of the mindfulness courses that I teach, and share the concepts with many of the clients I work with in therapy. To begin to develop some self-compassion of your own, try this exercise.
- Think of something that you don’t like about yourself. Maybe it’s a mistake you’ve made, or a personality characteristic that you wish you didn’t have. Maybe it’s something you don’t like about your appearance.
- When you bring this to mind, notice what thoughts go through your head. Write some of the things down that you say to yourself about this aspect of yourself that you don’t like, or this mistake that you’ve made.
- Look over these statements, and ask yourself if you would ever say these things to a friend or family member who you love.
- Notice how much suffering is caused by your judgment of yourself and the things that you say to yourself.
- Now imagine that a good friend or beloved family member were suffering in the same way that you are. Imagine that they have done the same thing that you did, or have this same flaw.
- What would you say to them? Write out some statements that you would say to this loved one who is struggling in the same way that you currently are.
- Notice the difference between the two sets of statements. Why are you kind to others who are suffering but not to yourself?
- Try saying the statements that you wrote to your loved one to yourself. Notice how this feels. It will likely feel quite uncomfortable at first because we don’t normally talk to ourselves in this way.
- If you want to reduce your own suffering, try to notice when you are being critical or unkind to yourself, and try to instead talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a good friend.
- For an added challenge, try writing yourself a letter expressing understanding and compassion for what you’re going through. Use statements such as, “I know this is so hard,” to give yourself some empathy and validation for how you’re feeling.
If you’d like to learn more about self-compassion, find additional exercises and meditations, or learn more about the Mindful Self-Compassion courses, visit Dr. Neff’s website, self-compassion.org.