Self-compassion: How to be your own best friend

When someone we care for is feeling down, we’d like to think we would be first in line to help pick them back up. But are we doing that for ourselves as well? In preparation for two eight-week classes The Parkview Center for Healthy Living will offer this spring, Chris Germer, Ph.D.*, co-founder of the Mindful Self-Compassion curriculum, shares more about the materials the courses will cover.

If a good friend tells you about an ordeal they’re facing or a mistake they’ve made, how do you typically respond? In all likelihood, you offer kindness and comfort, perhaps speaking in a warm and soothing tone, and maybe offering a hug to show how much you care. When your friend recovers and the conversation continues, chances are that you’ll expand your support by encouraging your friend to take necessary action or try to discover how to steer clear of similar difficulties.

Now reflect for a moment on how you treat yourself when you make a big mistake or experience a setback. It’s likely that you’re much tougher on yourself — that you spring to self-criticism (“I’m such an idiot!”), hide in embarrassment or shame (“Ugh!”), or ruminate for a long time on your perceived shortcomings or bad luck (“Why did this happen to me?”). When things go wrong in our lives, we tend to become our own worst enemy.

To recover emotionally and get back on your feet, here’s an approach you can take: self-compassion.

I’ve been working with mindfulness in my psychotherapy practice for over 30 years. It is a powerful resource that helps people stay present and focused on the task at hand. I’ve come to realize, however, that a component of mindfulness that is essential for emotional resilience is often overlooked. In particular, when we fail in a big way, we’re likely to become engulfed in shame, and our sense of self is dismantled. We all know what this feels like: We’re unable to think straight, temporarily suspended in time and place, dislocated from our bodies, and uncertain who we really are. Shame has a way of wiping out the very observer who is needed to be mindful of our situation.

What does it take to rescue yourself and begin to address the situation effectively? You need to treat yourself with the same kindness and support that you’d provide for a friend.

There is a substantial and growing body of research that shows that self-compassion is closely associated with emotional resilience, including the ability to soothe ourselves, recognize our mistakes, learn from them, and motivate ourselves to succeed. Self-compassion is consistently correlated with a wide range of measures of emotional well-being, such as optimism, life satisfaction, autonomy, and wisdom, as well as with reduced levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and shame.

To achieve these benefits, self-compassion must include three components, according to my colleague and pioneering self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff:

Mindfulness. Awareness of what’s going on in the present moment. To be kind to ourselves, we need to know that we’re struggling while we’re struggling. It helps to name the emotions we’re feeling in tricky situations and to ground ourselves in the here and now (sensations, sounds, sights). These are all skills associated with mindfulness that make space for a compassionate response.

Common humanity. Knowing we’re not alone. Most of us tend to hide in shame when things go really wrong in our lives, or we hide from ourselves through distraction or with a few stiff drinks. The antidote is recognizing our common humanity — understanding that many others would feel the same way in similar situations and that we’re not the only ones who suffer in life.

Self-kindness. A kind and warm-hearted response to ourselves. This can take many forms, such as a gentle hand over the heart, validating how we feel, talking to ourselves in an encouraging manner, or a simple act of kindness such as drinking a cup of tea or listening to music.

When we feel threatened, our nervous system is awash in adrenaline and goes into overdrive; when we’re in this state, showing ourselves care and kindness is usually the last thing we’re inclined to do. When we experience positive, warm connections, however, our system releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that downregulates the effects of adrenaline. Taking a mindful pause and then bringing kindness to ourselves seems to activate our innate caregiving system and the calming effect of oxytocin, allowing the mind to clear and giving us a chance to take rational steps to resolve the issue.

Even though self-compassion is not the default option for most of us when things go wrong, anyone can learn to do it. Neff has developed an exercise you can use in everyday life when you need self-compassion the most. It is called the Self-Compassion Break (see the box below). It is based on the three components of self-compassion I’ve described. (This is just one exercise we offer as part of our empirically supported Mindful Self-Compassion training program.)

Self-Compassion Break
When you notice that you’re under stress or are emotionally upset, see if you can locate where the emotional discomfort resides in your body. Where do you feel it the most? Then say to yourself, slowly: “This is a moment of struggle.”

That’s mindfulness.

See if you can find your own words, such as:
“This hurts”
“This is tough”
“Ouch!”
“Struggle is a part of living”

Now, put your hands over your heart, or wherever it feels soothing, sensing the warmth and gentle touch of your hands, and say to yourself: “May I be kind to myself.” “May I give myself what I need.”

Perhaps there are more specific words that you might need to hear right now, such as:
“May I learn to accept myself as I am”
“May I be safe”
“May I be strong”
“May I forgive myself”

If you’re having trouble finding the right language, it can help to imagine what you might say to a close friend struggling with that same difficulty. Can you say something similar to yourself, letting the words roll gently through your mind?

In closing, a warning: Many people dismiss self-compassion because they think it flies in the face of their ambition or hard-driving attitude, which are qualities that they think have made them successful. But being self-compassionate doesn’t imply that you shouldn’t be ambitious or push yourself to succeed. It’s about how you motivate yourself; instead of doing it with blame and self-criticism, self-compassion motivates like a good coach, with encouragement, kindness, and support. It’s a simple reversal of the Golden Rule: Learning to treat ourselves as we naturally treat others in need — with kindness, warmth, and respect.

To further this discussion, Parkview Center for Healthy Living is hosting two eight-week community programs:

  • Mindful Self-Compassion, led by Lorraine M. Hobbs, M.A., director, Youth and Family Programs, U.C. San Diego Center for Mindfulness. Weekly classes be held Wednesdays, May 24 – July 12, from 6 – 8:30 p.m. and include a half-day retreat scheduled for Sunday, July 2. The program will provide participants with the knowledge and skills of self-compassion to combat self-criticism, self-denial and self-absorption, and to gain emotional strength and resilience. Program activities, including meditation, short talks, experiential exercises, group discussion and home practices, are meant to provide a safe and supportive environment for exploring typical responses to difficult emotions and to enhance emotional resources and personal capacities. For more information, pricing and to register, please visit Parkview.com/selfcompassion.
     
  • Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, led by Lorraine M. Hobbs, M.A., director, Youth and Family Programs, U.C. San Diego Center for Mindfulness. Weekly classes be held Wednesdays, May 24 – July 12, from 10 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. and includes a day-long retreat scheduled for Saturday, July 1. This challenging and life-affirming program includes guided instruction in mindfulness meditation practices, gentle stretching and mindful yoga, exercises to enhance awareness in everyday life as well as group dialogue and daily assignments. For more information, pricing and to register, please visit Parkview.com/MBSR.

 

*Chris is a psychologist and lecturer at Harvard University in the department of psychiatry.

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