Imagine a mistake or failure you experienced as a kid.
I’ve got one. During an elementary school “Entrepreneurship Day,” each student was supposed to bring something to sell to other students. I decided to create and sell drawings, but at Entrepreneurship Day, it became clear that no one wanted them.
I went home empty-handed.
That memory of failure, from when I was five or six years old, sticks with me better than any accomplishments from elementary school.
Failure and mistakes have a way of doing that. Our focus on the bad over the good is driven by natural selection, society, religion, and sometimes our parents and friends.
Self-compassion is a tool we can use to combat this inclination to beat ourselves up and hold ourselves to impossible standards. With practice, we can learn to comfort ourselves tenderly, as we would a child or a dear friend.
Why is self-compassion so hard?
When it comes to self-compassion, the deck is stacked against us.
It’s not a skill that’s commonly taught to children. And if it’s not taught, what we learn comes from what we absorb from those around us.
The example of our parents and friends, who were going through their own journey on the self-compassion vs self-judgment spectrum.
The invisible scripts we learn from society. Scripts like “productivity is important, and being too easy on yourself can lead to laziness,” or “your self-worth is tied to your accomplishments.” Feelings that self-compassion is too indulgent, or too selfish.
Religion can also hard-code in many of us the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with us, or that guilt is a burden we deserve to bear as punishment for sin.
Then there’s the fact that being compassionate to ourselves involves recognizing and confronting our mistakes and failures. And looking our mistakes and failures in the face is hard.
Finally, we might even be evolutionarily hard-wired to remember bad events more than good ones, as a way to avoid repeating mistakes and increase our chances of survival.
So, yeah—because of all of these factors, resistance can come up when we try to practice self-compassion.
What are the three components of self-compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff is a leading researcher specializing in self-compassion. According to Dr. Neff, the three components of self-compassion are:
- Self-kindness (not self-judgment): The biggest task of self-compassion is to default to self-kindness instead of self-judgment. It tends to be easy to criticize ourselves. A harder practice is creating space for kindness when we’ve made mistakes.
- Common humanity (not isolation): In moments of difficulty, sometimes it feels like we’re the only person in the world going through what we’re going through. In reality, at any given moment there are many mistakes being made and difficult emotions among the other billions of human beings on the planet. Tapping into that commonality can help to alleviate the sense of isolation that often comes with self-judgment.
- Mindfulness (not over-identification): Compassion means zooming out and placing our own struggles under the lens of nonjudgmental awareness. Through mindfulness, we can stop over-identifying with the negative thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing.
Dr. Neff’s excellent TEDTalk summarizes her approach to self-compassion:
Treat yourself like you would a dear friend
My entry point into the world of self-compassion came through the book On My Own Side by Dr. Aziz Gazipura.
Turns out, I was allowing myself to slip into negative thought patterns without even realizing it. Of course, I still experience negative self-talk, but now I’m more likely to recognize when it happens.
In the book, Dr. Aziz talks about an idea that’s stuck with me ever since:
Why can’t we treat ourselves lovingly and tenderly, as we would a dear friend or a child?
Our default mode as humans seems to be to treat ourselves worse than any other human being we encounter. We say things to ourselves that we’d never say to others!
Rather than being hard on ourselves, we need to treat ourselves with the utmost respect and care. That’s how we can best thrive and become emotionally resilient.
The compassion we have for ourselves needs to be at least equal to the compassion we have for others.
How do I get better at self-compassion?
Here’s a five-point plan for getting better at self-compassion. If you’re new to the practice, start by developing awareness of your existing negative talk.
And remember—don’t beat yourself up for slow progress on self-compassion!
First, develop your awareness
Recognize negative self-talk when it arises.
This part’s hard. It’s possible that with years of practice, the voice inside your head that’s negative and hard on you has become the status quo.
You may not have any idea how negative your self-talk is until you bounce it off of someone else. That’s why it can be so helpful to talk through your problems with a trusted friend or partner. It’s easier for them to recognize and correct negative self-talk than it is for you.
Second, flip the script to self-kindness
Journaling is one way to do this in the early days, before you’ve built up a mental reflex to notice criticism and change it to compassion.
Write down how you’re feeling about your life. Notice areas of difficulty, and especially areas where you’re beating yourself up. Consider how you can filter those negative thoughts through a frame of self-compassion.
Third, treat yourself as you would a dear friend
Imagine a dear friend coming to you with the difficult feelings and negative thought patterns you’re experiencing.
What would you say to them?
How would you console them?
Aim to be as kind to yourself as you would to a close friend or a child.
Fourth, remind yourself that you’re not alone in making mistakes
Although dealing with difficult emotions can be hard—especially when you feel like you deserve them—remember that you don’t have a monopoly on doing things that hurt others, on failure, or on feelings of inadequacy. What you’re going through are universal human experiences.
Fifth, practice mindfulness
Mindfulness helps to build your skills of awareness and non-judgment. Over time, this can help you stop overthinking and over-identifying with negative thought patterns.
Building a more compassionate relationship with yourself
Let’s go back to the example from the beginning of the article: my failure to sell any drawings at the school Entrepreneurship Day.
I remember running home from school crying, feeling embarrassed and ashamed. The day’s failure ran over and over in my mind.
Luckily for me, mom immediately hugged me and comforted me when I got home. She soothed me and told me it was okay.
I may no longer be five years old, but this is still the compassionate way to treat myself.
When you experience sadness, guilt, failures, shame, embarrassment, and fear, the compassionate response is not to ignore it, push through it, or feel like you deserve it.
It’s to hug, comfort, and soothe yourself, as you would a child.
Frequently asked questions
Why is self-compassion important?
Self-compassion is important because it teaches you healthy coping skills in the face of the mistakes and failures that all humans experience.
Without self-compassion, it’s easy to fall into patterns of negative thinking and low self-esteem.
Self-compassion helps you build a healthy relationship with yourself, improve confidence, and increase your emotional stability and resilience.
Self-compassion exercises PDF
Looking for a self-compassion exercises PDF? You can download one here.
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Hi there—my name is Ryan. My mindfulness practice kicked off in 2016 after I joined a ten-day silent retreat. I started Mindfulness Box because thinking about what makes humans happy, calm, and peaceful is endlessly fascinating to me.