A Guide to Self-Compassion, a Path to Well-Being

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How we think about ourselves is an important part of well being. Studies by Dr. Kristen Neff (self-compassion.org) and others have identified that there may be a better way of relating to ourselves than self-esteem. Self-esteem is often based on performing better than others, which can lead to comparing ourselves to others instead of building a culture of collaboration and mutual support. This also leaves us vulnerable to unstable self-worth when we face difficulties. This can result in avoiding challenges, putting others down, or hiding our mistakes instead of learning from them.

Three gateways to self-compassion

One alternative is building a self-concept based on self-compassion. Looking at three gateways to self-compassion will help explain what I mean:

  1. Self-Kindness: Self-compassion is showing ourselves kindness in moments of suffering. Instead of harshly judging ourselves, we can gently pick ourselves up with warmth and encouragement. This can help us be more courageous in the future since we’re not fearing self-criticism or wasting energy on beating ourselves up when we fail.Do you worry that you will fall apart if you stop criticizing yourself? True self-kindness makes wise choices that lead to long-term well being. For example, being kind to yourself might mean deciding to exercise even when you don’t feel like it, because you want to be healthy. The trick is not forcing yourself to do it through calling yourself lazy, but rather changing the tone to one of a compassionate friend, gently but firmly reminding yourself that this is what you need.
  2. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is important for self-compassion because it helps us pay attention to what we need in the present moment. Mindfulness also allows us to non-judgmentally notice things about ourselves, including strengths and weaknesses. Once we’ve started building a kinder tone within ourselves it becomes less threatening to take a vulnerable look at ourselves and what actions we need to take. Perhaps paradoxically, it helps to accept where we are right now before we can take steps towards getting better.
  3. Common-Humanity: This means realizing that we’re all imperfect and you are valuable and worthy of love. Many believe that all life has value, and it can be a healing experience to include yourself within this circle of innate worthiness. This can help to heal from shame when you start to realize that you are not alone in your struggle and there are others going through similar painful experiences.

Ways to build self-compassion

Self-compassion is a practice and a journey. It is a daily intention to try to shift our inner dialogue and feelings about ourselves to more gentleness and warmth. There are many ways you can build a kinder relationship to yourself and I encourage you to experiment to find what works for you. Here are a few places to consider starting:

  • Mindfulness or loving-kindness meditations or prayers
  • Self-compassion.org has a collection of exercises
  • Spending time in nature
  • Surrounding yourself with compassionate people and writings

Often parents ask me how to build their children’s sense of self-compassion. If children observe you being compassionate to yourself, it teaches them that this is an option for themselves. For example, when you spill your coffee all over the car seat, instead of cursing at yourself, you can say aloud for your little one to hear, “Oops! I feel bad about that, but everyone makes mistakes. I’m going to take a deep breath and remind myself that I’m a good person.” It changes the whole tone of the experience and makes space for more joy!

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