Compassion for others and self-compassion both play a role in our wellbeing. Research has found that people who are compassionate to themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious, and stressed, and are much more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic about their future. This post is based on the ideas of Kristen Neff (Associate Professor Human Development and Culture, Educational Psychology Department, University of Texas at Austin) offers practical tips on building self-compassion.
Neff’s website provides lots of lovely self compassion exercises (http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/), and also has a Ted talk worth listening to (https://youtu.be/IvtZBUSplr4).
Imagine you are sitting in a crowded coffee shop and you overhear two friends on the table beside you. One leans towards the other and utters the following words: You’re not good enough, you look fat in those pants and you don’t deserve a promotion.
You wince at the sheer cruelty of the words. How could anyone say that to another person? You would never be so unkind. Or would you? Have you ever listened to your own self-talk? Often we speak to ourselves more harshly then we realise. Why do we do this? Some people think that this kind of self-talk is motivating, it keeps them striving towards important goals. It turns out this is not always the case, and in fact you do more harm then good in the long run.
So what is the alternative? Turns out that a little self-compassion can go a long way. But what is self-compassion and how can it benefit us? Put simply, self-compassion refers to treating yourself with same kindness that you would a loved one. More specifically, Dr. Kristin Neff has conceptualised self-compassion as consisting of three main components:
The first step to self-compassion involves being mindful of what is going on for us at a given moment. Being mindful allows for the non-judgmental observation of thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. Thus allowing our thoughts and experiences to be observed and viewed with clarity. Mindfulness also requires that we avoid over-identifying with cognitions and emotions, so that we are not caught up and swept away by negative reactivity. Being mindful allows us to observe what we need in a given moment.
2. Common Humanity
Second is the common humanity component. Here we acknowledge that suffering and perceived personal inadequacies are shared human experiences and that as humans we all experience difficult emotions at one time. By definition, being human means being vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, suffering is something that is experienced by all, and thus is not a unique experience. When we recognise our common humanity we feel a sense of belonging, and avoid feeling alone in our pain.
3. Self Kindness
The final component of self-compassion is self-kindness, which involves being warm and considerate toward ourselves when we suffer, rather than disregarding our pain or being self-critical. Failing or experiencing life difficulties is an inevitable part of living. It is therefore important to be gentle with ourselves. Self-kindness is about doing what is in our best interests. It is about recognising and doing what we need rather than what we want.
For the past decade or so I’ve been conducting research on self-compassion, and have found that people who are compassionate to themselves are much less likely to be depressed, anxious, and stressed, and are much more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic about their future. In short, they have better mental health.