How to cultivate self-compassion and how it can help to find more equanimity in your life
It’s common to have a running commentary in your mind that sounds something like this:
"You’ll never get that job. You’re not smart, cool or creative enough. That fight was all your fault. You don’t belong at that party with those accomplished people. You’ll never finish that project. You’ll never achieve that goal. Who do you think you are? If you don’t get a perfect grade on that paper, it’ll confirm you’re a fraud. Scratch that. You are a fraud. You’re also a terrible mother. You also can’t do anything right. You also aren’t worthy of ____ and ______. And _____."
We would never think of putting down a person who is already lying on the ground. We don't throw at a friend sentences like above into his face. It is clear to us that this does not help, rather harms.
But why do we meet in failure so differently from a good friend? Why don't we treat ourselves kindly and compassionately?
The inner critic originates from early experiences with primary caregivers. We internalize how these significant caregivers relate and perceive us in the world.
Dealing with our great critic, our inner judge in our mind, can be very challenging, worse, this critic doesn't help us one bit further on our path to a fulfilled, happy life and well-being. At the core of our inner critic is usually an overwhelming feeling of not being good enough, which leads the inner critic to continuously scan for evidence that supposedly substantiates our worthlessness. Low self-esteem, perfectionism, anxiety, depression and a low body image are often the consequences.
But it doesn’t matter how cruel and awful and persistent your inner critic is because you can soften it.
You CAN change your relationship with yourself.
Self-compassion is one of the key factors in mental health and possibly the central mechanism in the "effectiveness" of mindfulness.
Cultivating self-compassion is a beautiful way to improve your relationship with yourself.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion involves treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time—even if your friend blew it or is feeling inadequate, or is just facing a tough life challenge.
Self-compassion is an inner attitude which we can consciously activate and entails:
Being kind and understanding toward oneself in times of pain or failure. We take care of ourselves like a good, understanding friend or a caring mother. We do not judge ourselves for our experience. We are there for ourselves when we need it.
Perceiving one's own suffering as part of a larger human experience, the recognition that everyone faces difficulties, have painful experiences, is imperfect, makes mistakes and occasionally fails. We are not alone in our pain. Even more: it connects us humans.
This means that we approach our experience with an open, accepting attitude and consciously perceive our thoughts, feelings and body sensations. Mindfulness is a special form of directing one's own attention. It is the intentional, open, and accepting observation of what is happening in the moment of the present moment. Awareness of our inner and outer experiences. Without distraction and without any evaluation, positive or negative.
Self-compassion is not an egocentric practice, but rather an important prerequisite for a healthy relationship both with ourselves and with other people: Self-compassion is the ground of all emotional healing.
The ancient Buddhist idea of being compassionate to oneself is - today scientifically proven - in connection with successful coping strategies for various challenges such as stress, living with diabetes, choral pain, the diagnosis of a serious illness or binge eating.
Self-compassion involves “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience” (*1, p. 224).
Presumably, a person high in self-compassion sees his or her problems, weaknesses, and shortcomings accurately, yet reacts with kindness and compassion rather than with self-criticism and harshness. Thus, self-compassion may buffer people against negative events and engender positive self-feelings when life goes badly.
Self-compassion honors the unavoidable fact that life entails suffering,
for everyone, without exception.
With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.
Fortunately, we can meet old pain with the resources of mindfulness and self-compassion and the heart will naturally begin to heal. Still, it means we have to allow ourselves to be slow learners when it comes to practicing self-compassion. And if we ever feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions, the most self-compassionate response may be to pull back temporarily – focus on the breath, the sensation of the soles of our feet on the ground, or engage in ordinary, behavioral acts of self-care such as having a cup of tea or petting the cat.
1. Mindfulness breathing
How do you cultivate mindfulness?
One way is to focus your attention on your own breathing. After setting aside time to practice mindful breathing, you’ll find it easier to focus attention on your breath in your daily life—an important skill to help you deal with stress, anxiety, and negative emotions, cool yourself down when your temper flares, and sharpen your ability to concentrate.
How to do it?
The most basic way to do mindful breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.
Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath:
a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds),
hold your breath (2 seconds),
and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds).
Otherwise, simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it!
--> It may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s okay. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
2. Friendliness: How would you treat a friend?
Please take out a sheet of paper and answer the following questions:
1. First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself or is really struggling in some way. How would you respond to your friend in this situation (especially when you’re at your best)? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
2. Now think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
3. Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
4. Please write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering.
Why not try treating yourself like a good friend and see what happens?
Tender self-compassion involves “being with” ourselves in an accepting way: comforting ourselves, reassuring ourselves that we aren’t alone, and being present with our pain.
Test how self-compassionate you are!
Download Pdf Self-compassion scale short form
Find out more about self-compassion in this TED talk from Kristin Neff.
Kristin Neff is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas. She has become known for her research on self-compassion. After being exposed to Buddhism and practicing meditation at an early age, she decided to empirically investigate the Buddhist concept of self-compassion. She is co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, a non-profit international organization dedicated to spreading self-compassion.
--> Watch this TED talk on youtube: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion
E. M. Forman, J. D. Herbert, E. Moitra, P. D. Yeomans, P. A. Geller: A Randomized Controlled Effectiveness Trial of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive- Therapy for Anxiety and Depression; Behavior Modification Vol. 31/6 Nov 2007; p 772-799
*1 L.K. Barnard, J. F. Curry: Self-Compassion: Conceptualizations, Correlates, & Intervention. Review of General Psychology, Vol.15/4 Dec 2011; p 289-303; https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025754