by Lynda Wallace
Don’t you just love spring? It’s a beautiful season of new growth—and a wonderful time of year to renew our commitment to treating ourselves with care and kindness. Of all of the skills, concepts, and practices I’ve worked on with clients and students over the years, developing a practice of self-compassion is one I’ve seen have particularly profound effects, often in surprising ways.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is the practice of nudging aside our self-critical thoughts and replacing them with thoughts that are more understanding—and ultimately much more helpful. It’s a way of treating ourselves that not only can make us feel a whole lot better, but can actually help us to more successfully pursue a wide variety of practical goals as well.
To understand what self-compassion is, it can help to compare it to something most of us are more familiar with: self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a matter of how we think about ourselves. Self-compassion is about how we treat ourselves. They’re both important; they’re just two different things. Self-compassion isn’t about convincing ourselves that we are good enough; it’s about treating ourselves with the understanding and kindness we need in order to thrive.
How does it help?
Now, when I describe self-compassion to my clients and students, they sometimes tell me that they’d like to become more self-compassionate, but that they are afraid that if they do, they’ll never get anything done, that the most effective way they have to motivate themselves to ever make any progress is to be tough on themselves.
But a regular practice of self-compassion not only makes us feel better; it can help us to do better. Getting in the habit of treating ourselves with compassion can lead us to be less afraid of failure and more willing to take risks in pursuit of our goals, because we come to expect that we will meet our struggles, imperfections, and failures with the balm of self-compassion rather than the sting of self-criticism.
The researcher behind the practice of self-compassion is Kristin Neff of the University of Texas, Austin. Here are just a few of the benefits that her research has demonstrated:
● Decrease in anxiety and depression
● Increase in emotional and physical well-being
● Greater sense of self-worth and optimism.
And, in case you’re worried that self-compassion will leave you happily eating chips in front of the TV all day while your bills go unpaid, Dr. Neff’s research also makes it clear that self-compassion actually enhances our lives in practical ways as well, including:
● Greater personal responsibility
● Decrease in procrastination
● Greater progress toward goals.
So developing a practice of self-compassion can be extremely helpful in our efforts to create lasting positive change in our lives. Let’s look at how we can start to develop that practice.
The first thing to do, and you may be doing this already as you read, is to think briefly about an area in your life where you tend to be self-critical. What does the self-critical voice in your head tend to say to you? And if you heard a friend or loved one saying things like that to herself, what would you say in response? Or what would a wise and caring friend say to you if she could hear the self-critical voice in your head? Thinking about this can help you to craft self-compassionate responses that you can offer to yourself when your self-criticism starts to kick in.
I think it’s worth noting that Kristen Neff describes the friend whose kind voice we’re trying to call up as being both wise and caring. Our self-compassionate statements are meant to comfort us and encourage us—not simply to let us off the hook, but to affirm our worth in a way that can lead us back to what we most want for ourselves.
So take a few minutes to write down some of these compassionate, encouraging responses. And even if it might feel a little awkward, practice saying them out loud. Let yourself hear them. And try to let them in.
Now you’re ready to begin your practice of self-compassion in your daily life. Kristen Neff offers a three-step process for developing the practice. The three steps are mindfulness, universality, and kindness.
Let’s talk about mindfulness first. As you go about your life, you want to try to be alert to times when you are being self-critical, when you hear that harsh voice in your head. When you notice it, the first thing to do is to recognize the moment of difficulty. Tell yourself what’s going on. “I’m being self-critical here. But I can choose to intervene. This is a chance for me to practice self-compassion.”
The next step is universality. Kristen Neff’s research indicates that it is very powerful at this point to remind ourselves of our shared human condition. Whatever it is that we’re criticizing ourselves for, we can tell ourselves, “I’m not alone. Other people go through this.” Whatever has happened, whatever has prompted this bout of self-criticism, is part of being human.
And the third step is kindness. Here we want to tell ourselves “I can be a good friend to myself in this situation.” And we can offer ourselves the self-compassionate words that we practiced earlier, along with physically comforting gestures like hugging our arms to ourselves or putting our hands gently on our chest.
As with any practice, self-compassion takes repetition over time. It might feel a bit awkward at first, but the evidence is strong that it’s an effort worth making to develop a practice that has been proven to help us live with greater joy, resilience, and accomplishment.
Would you like to learn more about developing a practice of self-compassion—and helping others to do so as well? It’s one of the techniques I most enjoy teaching in WBI’s Positive Psychology Coaching courses. I hope you’ll consider joining us, either for a single course or our full certification program!
Lynda Wallace is the Program Director and Lead Instructor of WBI’s Positive Psychology Coach Certification program. One of the country’s most highly sought-after coaches and teachers, and the author of the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, Lynda holds an MBA from the Wharton School and a Certificate in Positive Psychology from Wholebeing Institute. Before becoming a certified Positive Psychology Coach, Lynda spent 20 years as an executive with Johnson & Johnson, where she ran a billion-dollar global business including some of the world’s most iconic brands. Galvanized by the compelling findings of positive psychology, she left the business world to begin a new career doing work she genuinely loves, helping others to create positive change in their lives.