This heavy hitter in your emotional resilience toolbox is the ability to treat yourself with self-compassion when faced with your various inadequacies, shortcomings, and personal failings.
Research shows that this skill can boost almost everything you do- like following through with the changes you deeply want to make, showing up with your family or work in the way you most want to, and managing stress with more ease and grace.
But wait, self-compassion? Yikes. I know. This can be hard to do. It’s more familiar to armor up with the trusty old self-criticism defense. To mercilessly judge our mistakes and flaws.
Consider your own experience for a moment. Bring to mind a recent time you struggled to follow through, came up short, or disappointed yourself or somebody else. Let those common feelings of frustration, shame, or fear bubble up. Now, what’s your instinct? Is it to be kind and generous toward yourself?
Or do you hear something like these messages in your mind:
“How could you have done that?
“You should’ve done this soooo much better.”
“No one else would’ve made this type of mistake.”
“You really need to get it together!”
“You’re just not good enough.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
If your mind works like mine does, then these statements sound familiar!
I find that I need the tool of self-compassion most when I’m feeling stressed, overworked, or having a hard time balancing all of the demands of my life. There’s a recovering perfectionist in me that longs to please others, that can always see how things could be better, and has a razor sharp understanding of my shortcomings. It’s excruciating when I feel like I’m “dropping balls,” disappointing others, or falling short on my expectations. And it’s so familiar to start getting critical or hard on myself.
The truth is, this inner critic makes my mind race even faster. My judgements and expectations become more rigid, my behavior gets less effective, and I show up like a tightly wound stress ball in my most important relationships. Not my proudest moments!
The tool of self-compassion teaches me to stop and breath when I notice I’m feeling stressed. To acknowledge how difficult it is to feel pressure and stress. To remind myself that I’m not alone, that this is a normal feeling in a difficult situation. To choose to see myself compassionately, and then offer myself a few kind words. To be the type of friend to myself that I am to everyone else.
This, my friends, has been life changing. Once compassion enters the picture, I’m better able to make good decisions, prioritize my time, and relate better to the people around me. All while taking better care of myself in my own head.
Self-compassion means that we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend when we’re having a difficult time, fail, or notice something about ourselves that we don’t like. (Thank you Dr. Kristin Neff for your ground-breaking research in this field.)
Failure, difficulty, and mistakes are normal parts of life. Normal parts of being in relationships. Normal parts of working towards our goals. And most of us are more familiar with trying to motivate changes in ourselves, or to seek a sense of love and belonging through self-improvement, rather than self-compassion.
The more you embrace self-compassion as an ally in your private and painful moments, the more connected, contented, and self-accepting you can be. The research on self-compassion indicates that when you move toward something you care about in a self-compassionate way, your behavior, choices and mindset all become more effective, and your experience of living becomes more rewarding.
It’s important to get clear on what self-compassion is NOT. It’s not a way to get out of making important decisions or a way to avoid responsibility. It’s not letting yourself off the hook if you act outside of your values. And it’s not a sign of weakness or cowardice. Self-compassion is about the way treat yourself when you’re in pain, and helps you respond to the situation in a values-driven and effective way.
It’s helpful to understand the three components to self-compassion so you can put this essential mental and relational health tool to practice.
1. Notice and acknowledge your suffering or difficulty. The first step when practicing self-compassion is to take a few moments to mindfully notice and acknowledge that you’re in pain. That something difficult and uncomfortable is happening inside of you. That you’re struggling in some way. It sounds like this:
“This is a moment of suffering.”
“This is really hard right now.”
“I’m feeling pain.
2. Remind yourself of your common humanity. When we’re faced with our failures, we can often feel isolated, and like there’s something extraordinary about our shortcomings. The second step in self-compassion is to remind ourselves that what we’re struggling with is part of being human, that it’s normal to feel the way you do in the situation you’re in, and that many people go through similar situations. It could go like this in your mind:
“I’m not alone in this type of pain.”
“This difficulty is a normal part of being human.”
“It’s OK to be feeling this way.”
3. Choose to treat yourself with kindness, similar to the way you’d treat a dear friend.
In this last step, you choose to behave and think about yourself in an understanding and caring way. You challenge yourself to consider supportive and gentle things you could say to a good friend going through a very similar situation. And then offer yourself the same messages. Maybe you’d say something like this to yourself:
“I’m here for you.”
“It’s going to be OK.”
“I care about you.”
With practice, this potentially unfamiliar skill can become a life-changing way to find resilience and connection through the more tender, difficult parts of being human. Keep practicing with the help of this Luminary Self Compassion Ally Worksheet to be guided through it, step-by-step. Also, Kristin Neff’s free self-compassion audio, the “Self Compassion Break”, is a 5-minute favorite.
I love knowing that we’re all in this being human thing together. And that the efforts I make to embrace the ally of self-compassion in my own life will encourage others to do the same as well. We lift ourselves, and each other, up when we support ourselves with kindness.
Cara Maiolo, MA, LPC, E-RYT
Aspen Integrated Counseling
Luminary Health Educator
Cara is founder and owner of Aspen Integrated Counseling, serving adults and adolescents in individual and family therapy based out of Aspen, CO. She is co-founder and a lead educator of Luminary, offering mind-body wellness preventative healthcare education through retreats, online courses, and workshops. She enjoys helping others pursue a meaningful life through a rewarding connection with themselves, thriving relationships with others, and a clear sense of purpose and personal value. Cara is a Colorado native and feels most content playing in the outdoors accompanied by her husband, Brent, and son, Kepa. She also enjoys traveling to beaches and far-off places, reading with a steaming cup of coffee nearby, cooking for friends and family, practicing and studying yoga, and sharing stories and ideas with others.