Updated: Jul 1, 2021
By: Jenna Gwaltney, LCMHCA, NCC
Holland and Associates Counseling, PLLC
Imagine this: your best friend comes to you with eyes full of tears. They tell you that they missed a deadline for work, and they’re really beating themselves up. They call themselves stupid, they call themselves lazy, they go on and on about how awful the error was and how terrible they are for making it. What would you do? Would you join them in describing their shortcomings? Or would you feel your heart go out to them, validate their pain, tell them they’re not alone, and offer some kind words of support or encouragement?
It’s likely that you would choose a compassionate response to your friend, because most of us are pretty good at noticing when other people are hurting and choosing to be kind to them. Think about the tone of voice you would use, the facial expression, the words. Think about that feeling of being forgiving, accepting, and supportive. It’s nice, right? Being compassionate feels good.
Self-compassion is the exact same thing, but for ourselves: treating ourselves the same way we would treat a friend who was struggling. It has just three components: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. Compassion means “to suffer with”, and when we are self-compassionate, we make the effort to witness, normalize, and soothe our own pain, instead of getting stuck in it. We notice that we are hurting, we give ourselves understanding, and we attend to ourselves with care and concern – the same way we would support a loved one who was having a hard time.
Earlier today in a meeting with my supervisor, she asked me to update her on a client we had discussed last week. With a hot wave of shame, I realized I had forgotten to make an important phone call to the client. I confessed, and we made a plan for me to reach out to the client this evening. After supervision, that feeling of shame kept hanging around, getting heavier by the minute. My thoughts became increasingly self-critical: How could I have forgotten to reach out when I know this situation is time-sensitive? I can’t believe I didn’t just do what I was supposed to do when I was supposed to do it. I can’t believe I screwed this up so badly. UGH.
By the time I noticed what I was doing to myself, my jaw was clenched, my shoulders were jammed up under my ears, and my face was furrowed into a deep frown. I felt like I wanted to disappear. Hey, whoa, I said to myself gently, hang on a second.
I breathed in slowly and closed my eyes. I breathed out slowly. I practiced self-compassion, imagining a benevolent me speaking kindly and gently to this hurting, confused me, narrating my experience with understanding and acceptance. Gosh, this is painful! This is a painful moment of suffering, and it hurts. It’s difficult to feel this way. You’re feeling a lot of shame, and you’re noticing that your body is wanting to curl up and hide. Your thoughts are criticizing you. I’m right here with you, shug. These feelings are really unpleasant. Let’s remember that all human beings make mistakes, and all human beings experience shame. You’re not the only person in the world today who messed up and experienced pain. You’re not alone. Making mistakes and suffering are normal parts of being human, and they always pass. I placed my hands over my heart, turning toward my awareness of my hurt. I repeated the phrases that work for me: May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I accept myself just as I am. May I support myself with loving kindness.
I checked back in with my body. I chose to exhale and drop my shoulders, loosen my jaw, and relax my brow. I still felt upset – but I also felt seen, supported, and soothed. Taking a minute to turn towards my pain with compassion, instead of ignoring it or continuing to increase it with negative thoughts, made a huge difference in how I was able to finish my evening. I mindfully acknowledged that I was hurting, I reminded myself that I wasn’t alone, and I chose kind words to repeat to myself. Remembering to do it was the hardest part – and I have found that the more often I do it, the easier it gets.
Dr. Kristin Neff is a wonderful researcher who has devoted her career to self-compassion. Her website (self-compassion.org) includes an abundance of information and free resources for beginning your practice of self-compassion. There are also several videos of her speaking available on YouTube if you search for “Kristin Neff Self-Compassion.” One of my favorite practices for beginning a self-compassion practice is included here, with gratitude to Dr. Neff for providing this free exercise on her website.
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind, and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body.
Now, say to yourself:
1. This is a moment of suffering
That’s mindfulness. Other options include:
This is stress.
2. Suffering is a part of life
That’s common humanity. Other options include:
Other people feel this way.
I’m not alone.
We all struggle in our lives.
Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest.
Say to yourself:
3. May I be kind to myself
You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as:
May I give myself the compassion that I need
May I learn to accept myself as I am
May I forgive myself
May I be strong
May I be patient
This practice can be used any time of day or night, and will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion when you need it most.
For more information, please visit Dr. Neff’s website at self-compassion.org or check out some lectures on YouTube. If this practice has resonated with you today, please spread the word! The more you repeat this new skill, the easier it will get – and it really does make a difference.