You can probably recite the golden rule, “treat others as you would treat yourself.” It is commonly taught in elementary school — but have you been taught to treat yourself as you would treat others you care for?
It’s likely you are compassionate with family members, friends, colleagues, and sometimes, even strangers. You are willing to extend a caring, understanding hand when they need it. You may accept their personal failings easily and without judgement. But what about your own personal challenges and shortcomings? Are these an endless source of self-judgement, blame and disappointment?
Self-compassion is a practice where you seek to be kinder and more supportive towards yourself. Having self-compassion helps you approach life with optimism, happiness and resilience.
If you are your own worst critic, it could be time to give self-compassion a shot. It can help you be more motivated, optimistic and happy. Self-compassion can help you improve all of your relationships — starting with the relationship you have with yourself.
Three building blocks of self-compassion
Self-compassion has three main components:
1. First, it’s about offering kindness to yourself when in pain, when you fail, or feel unworthy. Think of a time you experienced a failed relationship. This likely caused you some emotional hurt — would filling yourself with shame and guilt help with your recovery, or prolong it? What about missing an event at your child's school because you simply forgot. Would beating yourself up about it change the fact that you missed it? What if you got skipped for a promotion at work. Would self-doubt help you build a path for greater opportunity, or get in the way of it? Being self-critical can lead to stress, frustration or other negative emotions. But if you accept the failing with kindness, and look for what you can learn from it as you move ahead, you are more likely to cope well and be resilient — bringing your best self to all future challenges.
2. Second, self-compassion helps connect you to the shared human experience, knowing that you aren't alone and that no one, including you, can expect to be perfect all the time. This can protect you against feelings of isolation, or the feeling that bad things “only happen to me.”
When something challenging happens to you, try to remember that you aren’t perfect… and neither is anyone else. When something good happens to you, try to take a moment to recognize the many people who contributed, directly or indirectly, to the situation you find yourself in.
3. Third, self-compassion lets you take a balanced approach to managing negative emotions. You don’t need to ignore your pain or hurt in order to feel self-compassion. But, when you get wrapped up in negative personal emotions or failings, you can miss the bigger picture.
Think again of the missed promotion at work. Did that challenge open up any new opportunities for you in your current role that you look forward to, or help you learn and grow in an unexpected way? Is there any good or value you can find in the situation? By making an effort to reframe setbacks into new opportunities (even if they are hard at first), you might find new strength, compassion and confidence where before you felt only hardship.
Self-compassion in the real world
You might think self-compassion sounds a little too indulgent. But self-compassion isn’t self-pity, indulgence or vanity. You can feel good about yourself without feeling like you are better than others. You can acknowledge pain without making it your focus. You can give yourself emotional comfort and room to make changes and move forward.
So where to begin?
Forgive yourself. Do you punish yourself for your mistakes? My apartment is always messy. Why can’t I keep it clean like a normal person?
Start by acknowledging no one is perfect. Your apartment might be messy because you are working two jobs, or you’re studying hard at school. No one can do it all, and that’s OK. But if your messy home is bothering you, you can brainstorm a few ideas to clean it up. Try reframing it from a task you can’t find time for, to a gift you’re giving yourself — “I can’t wait to fall asleep in a clean bedroom” — and you just might find creative new ways to manage it. “Tonight, I’ll clean dirty dishes, tomorrow I’ll pick up clutter and on the weekend, I’ll get laundry done.”
Look for opportunities to grow. Do you get down on yourself because you have a shortcoming or think you’ve failed? “At my company, others my age are at the top of the ladder. I’m not even a manager.”
Try to let yourself be inspired instead, by others' accomplishments and your own. You may have taken a different journey than your colleagues, or than others your age, but you can and should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Maybe you recognize your priorities were different than getting to the top of the corporate ladder, or you faced different challenges than others.
You can start by acknowledging your strengths, no matter how small. Are you proud of finishing a project on time? Satisfied that you completed a nagging task, like sorting through the week's email? Think about why your coworkers come to you for help — maybe you are a good problem solver or supportive when they need it. If you need to remind yourself of why you should feel good about your efforts, write down your accomplishments and add to them as you go.
Say thanks. Do you find it hard to accept certain aspects of your life? “I work out every day and watch what I eat, and I still can’t fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes.“
Expressing gratitude for what you have can be a powerful emotion. It can help you gain a new and positive perspective on shortcomings and what you do well. For our new mother who is frustrated she isn't fitting into pre-pregnancy clothes, she might feel thankful her body is well enough to workout. Or grateful that she was able to carry a baby.
Maybe she leaves notes for herself around the house ("I'm thankful I'm strong" or "I'm glad I can work out") to remind herself of these blessings. Keeping negatives at bay is an important part of self-compassion. It can also help you stay with long-term goals. In the case of the new mom, is she more likely to stick with a workout if she feels like it is doing nothing for her, or if she is grateful she is healthy and strong? Gratitude can keep you moving in a positive direction.
Reviewed by Kaiser Permanente Clinical Ambassadors, including Mark Dreskin, MD, Sharon Smith, LPC, and/or David Kane, LCSW. September 2018.
Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage, Summary Plan Description or other coverage documents. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.