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While self-compassion seems like a basic human right, many people find it challenging to bring compassion to themselves when things get tough.
Why? Because most of the time, you are our own worst critic. On the surface, you may understand the benefits of self-compassion, but a little voice in your head whispers, "don't do it, don't give yourself a break; if you do, you'll just end up settling for mediocrity."
The truth is that self-compassion is a powerful way to move you out of mediocrity – or whatever other challenge or rut you may be experiencing. Once you soften towards yourself, it allows you to move forward with a new level of self-esteem.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Dr. Kristen Neff, associate professor in psychology and pioneer in the field of self-compassion, explains that self-compassion consists of three core elements:
1. Self-Kindness Vs. Self-Judgement
In life, things won't always go our way, and there will be times when you may fall short or miss the boat. The first element of self-compassion is to focus on self-kindness instead of self-judgement.
It's all too easy to judge ourselves when we fail at being a perfect human. In most cases, you would never judge a friend, family member, or colleague, as harshly as you judge yourself for innate human imperfection.
With self-compassion, you allow yourself the grace of imperfection, recognizing that experiencing failure and difficulties in life is inevitable and not something you should feel ashamed of.
As Dr. Neff explains, "When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced."
2. Common Humanity Vs. Isolation
When we feel inadequate, our mind tends to tell the story that we're unique in our suffering, and that other people can better handle life's challenges. This brings on feelings of isolation, as though our imperfections create suffering within us that is unrelatable to most others in our life.
The truth is that suffering and feeling inadequate are shared human experiences. There is not one person on this planet that hasn't felt less than, not good enough, not smart enough, or in some way inadequate in their life.
When you can digest and truly absorb this reality, you'll understand that suffering is something that we all go through together rather than being an experience that's yours alone. Camaraderie in your pain makes it less personal and takes away a great deal of its power.
3. Mindfulness Vs. Over-identification
To feel compassion for yourself and for your experience, you must first bring awareness to how you're feeling. You can't ignore your inner world and feel compassion for yourself at the same time. This is where the practice of mindfulness comes in.
Being mindful of your pain and suffering allows you to make space for it in your current experience. By not attaching your stories to your feelings, you can hold your uncomfortable emotions and allow them to exist. This involves bringing a willingness to experience your negative emotions with openness and clarity instead of shutting them out.
In this view, we are able to see our emotions more objectively and diminish the over-identification that tends to spiral us into a negative thought loop.
How Self-Compassion Enhances Resilience and Personal Power
The practice of self-compassion can be challenging at first. It's the tendency of the mind to hold on to negative thoughts in an effort to protect you. This is commonly known as the "negativity bias," and it's a part of the psyche that's been around for a long time to help you learn from mistakes and avoid potential threats.
The problem is that your negativity bias can go rogue, and instead of protecting you from outside threats, it tries to protect you from yourself. And when your ideal of yourself is to be the perfect human, there is a lot that could become a threat.
The fact is that you will have failures in life, and you will be hurt. This is not because there's something wrong with you or that you are inadequate – it's because you are human, and humans are innately imperfect beings. Our imperfections are part of what allows us to learn, grow, and evolve.
Self-compassion allows you to recognize your imperfections and accept yourself anyway. When you can do this, it shifts your brain out of the negativity bias and allows for a more open, positive frame of mind. From here, you can cultivate more positive emotions and feed your inner reservoir of strength and personal power.
The net result of self-compassion becomes a state of resilience, where unwanted outcomes become less impactful, and your ability to rise above them grows stronger and stronger.
The most difficult part of self-compassion is making the commitment to be easy with yourself. If you're like most people, giving yourself a break is much easier said than done. However, if you can allow yourself to move beyond the need to be perfect, even just once, you'll experience the relief that self-compassion provides, and you'll be much more likely to engage in this practice again.
Each time you choose compassion over judgment, you bring more acceptance to who you are, and as your self-acceptance grows, so too will your self-love. From a place of self-love, resilience becomes second nature.
Simple Mindful Self-Compassion Exercise
The Self-Compassion Break
This is a great exercise to practice while you're in the midst of tough emotions or any time during the day to strengthen your self-compassion muscle. In fact, it can be beneficial to do this exercise when you're not in the throes of emotion to practice the feeling of self-compassion. This way, when a highly emotional experience presents itself, you'll be better equipped to handle it.
To begin, bring your awareness to whatever it is that may be bothering you. Bring to life a situation that occurred, a fear that might be present, or any other uncomfortable feeling that's presenting, and notice all the thoughts and feelings that accompany it.
Next, repeat the following phrases either out loud or in your mind:
"This is a moment of suffering." This statement brings awareness to the fact that suffering is present. You can then expand by saying something that is personal to you or your situation, such as "I'm really having a hard time right now." This allows you to name what is happening for you.
Next, either out loud or in your mind, say, "suffering is a part of life." This reminds you of your common humanity. You're not alone; all humans suffer, and this is not your burden to carry alone. You can even add, "many people are going through, or have gone through, a similar situation to what I am currently dealing with."
Finally, with your hand on your heart, you can say, "may I be kind to myself in this moment." This statement is all about allowing yourself to give yourself the care you need in the moment. If it's challenging to give yourself the compassion you need in the moment, imagine that you are one of your good friends; how would you comfort a dear friend in this situation? Offer yourself that loving care.
Once you've sat in that loving care for a few moments, let go of the practice and just sit in mindful awareness. Allow yourself to be just as you are, accepting whatever it is that is coming up in this moment.