Developing Self-Compassion & Learning to Be Nicer to Ourselves

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.”

Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness

When people experience a setback either we become defensive and blame others, or we berate ourselves. Unfortunately, neither response is helpful. Shirking responsibility by getting defensive may alleviate the sting of failure, but it comes at the expense of learning. Self-flagellation, on the other hand, may feel warranted in the moment, but it can lead to an inaccurately gloomy assessment of one’s potential, which undermines personal development. What if instead we were to treat a friend in a similar situation? We’d be kind, understanding, and encouraging. Directing that type of response internally, toward ourselves, is known as self-compassion.

“Hold yourself as a mother holds her beloved child.” – Buddha

What is Self-Compassion Really About?

When we feel compassion for others, we feel kindness toward them, empathy, and a desire to help reduce their suffering. Self-compassion involves treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time. Self-compassion creates a caring space within you that is free of judgment—a place that sees your hurt and your failures and softens to allow those experiences with kindness and caring. Self-compassion involves responding to difficult thoughts and feelings with kindness, sympathy and understanding so that we soothe and comfort ourselves when we’rehurting.

The 3 core components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Self-kindness is the ability to shift our actions and inner dialogue to a softer more empathetic tone, like how you might speak to a dear friend.

Common humanity is a sense of interconnectedness and belief that your feelings and experiences are part of being human. Recognizing the fact that all people are imperfect, and all people experience pain.

Mindfulness helps us become more aware of how we treat ourselves and builds our capacity to observe our experiences and reactions in a non-judgmental way. 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. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

Why are we so lacking in self-compassion?

There can be a multitude of reasons why you have developed blocks for self-compassion.

“It’s selfish for me to be compassionate toward myself.”

Many people are taught to put others ahead of themselves. Self-compassion can seem like the opposite of what you “should” be doing: taking care of others.

But how will beating yourself up help you be kinder to others? The source of our compassion will only be more authentic when we are able to show compassion to ourselves first.

It may be that you never had a role model who whilst looking after you also looked after themselves. Maybe they passed on a message that it is selfish to take care of oneself. You are in charge of your own life and only you can look after your needs. If you grew up with a parent who was not emotionally available to you, you may have experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) and it may be difficult for you to take of you and support yourself because your early caregiver did not make you feel like your feelings needs mattered. As an adult, it may be a struggle to start changing the pattern.

If you were abused as a child and your boundaries were violated, it could mean that you developed beliefs about you as not valuable and you may struggle to take care of your needs.

If you grew up in a family where individual boundaries were enmeshed and there was little room for you to have your own space, you may feel guilty for wanting to have your own personal space and struggle with setting healthy boundaries. Perhaps the message from your family was to be a “good girl” or a “good boy”, you learnt that you must be in a certain way to be accepted and this might mean that you must not have needs of your own. We all are entitled to have a personal space and need healthy boundaries.

Self-Compassion is not self-indulgence. Self-compassion involves your health and well-being. Self-indulgence is about getting anything and everything you want without thoughts of well-being. Self-compassion is about becoming aware of and sitting with your pain. Self-indulgence numbs and denies your pain.

Self-Compassion is not self-pity. When individuals feel self-pity, they become immersed in their own problems and forget that others have similar problems. They ignore their interconnections with others, and instead feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection. Self-pitying individuals become wrapped up in their own emotional drama. They cannot step back from their situation and adopt a more objective perspective. In contrast, by taking the perspective of a compassionate other towards oneself, “mental space” is provided to recognize the broader human context of one’s experience and to put things in greater perspective.

Our society tends to reward toughing things out more than it does being kind and nurturing to yourself. But the truth is that the strongest people are also the ones who can buck cultural norms and feel genuine compassion for themselves and their circumstances.

The Yin and the Yang of Self-Compassion

Mindful self-compassion contains a wide variety of practices and exercises. Some practices fit more into the yin category and some into the yang category, although most have aspects of both.

The yin of self-compassion contains the attributes of “being with” ourselves in a compassionate way: comforting, soothing, validating.

Comforting means providing support for our emotional needs. Soothing is also a way to help us feel physically calm. Validating helps us feel better by understanding what we are going through and saying it in a kind way.

The yang of self-compassion is about “acting in the world”: protecting, providing, and motivating ourselves. Protecting means saying no to others who are hurting us or to the harm we inflict on ourselves, even in unconscious ways. Providing means giving ourselves what we need. Self-compassion motivates us to achieve our dreams, aspirations, and goals that we would like to realize in this lifetime.

When Life Is Hard, Can You Be Kind to Yourself?

Pain in life is inevitable, but when we resist the pain, it usually just makes the pain more intense. We suffer not only because it’s painful in the moment, but because we bang our head against the wall of reality – getting frustrated because we think things should be other than they are.

Another common form of resistance is denial. We hope that if we don’t think about a problem, it will go away. Research shows that when we try to suppress our unwanted thoughts or feelings, however, they just get stronger. Moreover, when we avoid or suppress painful thoughts and emotions, we can’t see them clearly and respond with compassion.

Mindfulness and self-compassion are resources that give us the safety needed to meet difficult experience with less resistance. When we fully accept the reality that we are imperfect human beings, prone to make mistakes and struggle, our hearts naturally soften.

Self-compassion triggers people to adopt a growth mindset.

One of the key requirements for self-improvement is having a realistic assessment of our strengths and our weaknesses. Convincing ourselves that we are better than we are leads to complacency and thinking we’re worse than we are leads to defeatism. Self-compassion does more than help people recover from failure or setbacks. When people treat themselves with compassion, they are better able to arrive at realistic self-appraisals, which is the foundation for improvement.

Be kind to yourself

The best way to think about being kind to yourself is to think about a friend. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering. Just as you would hug your friend, soothe yourself as well. Put your hands over your heart or locate the spot in your body where your hurt is hiding and gently place both hands there. Speak kindly to yourself.

Practice Mindfulness

Being mindful is about noticing what is happening in the moment and having no judgment about it. You must allow awareness of your pain to enter in. Notice your hurt and just be with it, compassionately and with kindness. Mindfulness allows you to stay with the pain without the resistance. When we are mindful of our struggles, and respond to ourselves with compassion, kindness, and support in times of difficulty, things start to change.

“You can search the whole tenfold universe and not find a single being more worthy of love and compassion than the one seated here – yourself.” – Buddha

It is necessary to learn that you are worthy of being loved. Self-compassion and self-forgiveness are not weaknesses, but the roots of our courage and magnanimity.

Be gentle with yourself. Know your limitations. As you face loss, frustration, hurt, and conflict, invite a sense of your own dignity. Sit up, stand up tall. Have respect for yourself, and patience and compassion. With these, you can handle anything.