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Are you kind and compassionate to yourself?

Written by Kirsikka Kaipainen (27 May 2016)

Self-criticism doesn't spur us forward, it brings us down.

When you are going through difficult times, make a mistake or experience failure, how do you treat yourself? How do you speak to yourself? If your close friend would be in the same situation, would you treat him or her in a similar way?

Precisely. Most of us say "no" to the latter question. I'd be a horrible person, if I'd scold my friend in the same way as myself. Of course we help, support and encourage our friends.

Sometimes we all need support from a friend.

I became conscious of this inconsistent behaviour during my studies. Once, I was plagued by self-accusations and anxiety, and I stopped to ask myself: "What would you say to another person in a similar situation?" I can't recall where this shift in perspective came from, but I'm incredibly happy about it, because this insight was a turning point in my own path. I turned away from the path that lead to anxiety and took the first small step towards healing and peace of mind. Years later I discovered a name for this new way of thinking: self-compassion.

Kindness to yourself

Self-compassion may sound like an alien concept at first. However, the principle is simple – treating yourself in a gentle, kind and accepting way. Kristin Neff's website is an excellent resource for learning more about the principles and the science of self-compassion, and there you can also test your skills in self-compassion through a 26-item questionnaire. For me, an eye-opening item in the questionnaire was: "When I'm going through a very hard time, I give myself the caring and tenderness I need." Could I do that? Am I allowed to?

Self-compassion is a skill that can be improved – no one is irredeemably self-critical. There are simple exercises that can take the edge off self-accusations and self-blame, and lengthier practices that help to gradually shift your perspective towards your own self. Another important thing to realize for me was the gradual development of negative cognitive and behavioural patterns; since it had taken years to develop them, it would also take time to turn them into more positive ones – but it would be possible in any case, so I had hope.

How to awaken self-compassion?

Acceptance and commitment therapy methods have improved my own self-compassion skills in several ways. First, mindfulness skills help to recognize self-critical thoughts and feelings of worthlessness. Second, cognitive defusion (stepping back from your thoughts) helps to understand, that negative thoughts aren't necessarily true. Third, through acceptance I can treat my unpleasant thoughts and feelings kindly whenever they appear, reducing their power over me. Last but not least, values clarification has made me understand that my worth as a human being is the same as anyone else's, and I don't need to compare myself to others all the time. In the long run, our programmes can also increase self-compassion, in addition to their other benefits. For professionals and others interested in combining ACT and self-compassion exercises, ACT with Compassion website provides more information and practical resources.

Also, here are some simple ways to ease your mind a bit when negative self-talk assaults you:

  • Breath: breathe deeply and slowly a few times. Deep breathing has a calming and balancing effect.
  • Posture: if your shoulders are slumped, straighten your back, lift your head and open up your chest. Switching the submissive "shame posture" to a confident, decisive one affects your mental state as well.
  • Touch: place your hand softly on your chest, stroke your arm or hug yourself. A gentle touch can calm you down and make you feel better, as if you were touched by a person who loves you and cares about you.
  • Mental images: imagine a person, animal or place, that is dear, pleasant and safe for you.
  • Senses: look at nice pictures, listen to music that you like, smell a sweet scent, or touch something pleasant.
  • Smile: lift the corners of your mouth a little, smile gently. A soft smile sends a message to your brain, that there's something to smile about, and thus the situation can't be all that bad.

Kristen Neff's website contains several exercises in audio or text format. Try them out and see which ones work for you.

A soft touch makes cats purr, too.

Well, what's it good for?

Research evidence about positive effects of self-compassion on mood, well-being and health has accumulated over the years. A meta-analysis published in 2012 looked at 14 studies and found a strong association between self-compassion and mental health. Moreover, a review in 2011 stated that self-compassionate people have less anxiety, depression, worrying, stress and procrastination, and they are more satisfied with their lives. So, it probably pays off to try it out.

Life experiences and culture can sometimes make it harder to accept compassion towards yourself. I've grown up in Finland, and I feel the Finnish culture makes many people prone to self-criticism: if we only get feedback when something goes wrong, it's quite challenging to develop any self-compassion. I initially had strong mental obstacles against practising self-compassion, because I was afraid of becoming selfish, lazy, or proud. However, practising self-compassion is totally different from boosting self-esteem. Research indicates that high self-compassion doesn't have nasty side-effects such as a self-centered or narcissistic attitude. On the contrary – self-compassionate attitude sets your attention free, allowing it to shift from your own self to other people. I find it a lot easier to communicate with others when I don't constantly have to repeat the same self-deprecating and self-centered thoughts in my mind: "you're no good, who could ever like you, you have nothing interesting to say...". Instead, I can genuinely focus on the situation and be present to other people.

What does that penguin think of me?

So. What would you say to a friend, who's in the same situation as you are? Does a failure or a mistake mean that you are lousy and worthless – or just a person who made an erroneous choice or a took a misguided action? These questions are worth thinking for all of us.