What is Self Compassion? An Essential Component of Self Care

When you hear the term “self care”, what comes to mind?  Personally, my thoughts automatically go to exercise, drinking lots of water, naps, pedicures and hanging out with friends. I’m willing to wager that similar images and ideas come up for you too. Lately, I’ve been thinking about another facet of self care that isn’t discussed as often. There seems to be a lot of focus on what we do for ourselves, physically, but how do we TALK to ourselves? We often forget that taking care of ourselves emotionally is a large part of self care, and a major component of self care is encouraging self compassion. Many of us struggle with this, myself included.

Recently, I was out to lunch with a friend. I discussed how a health diagnosis during a doctor’s visit had left me with feelings of overwhelm, and fear. I talked about what information I had, what was in my control and what was not. I had also, outside of my awareness, been berating myself for perceived mistakes which may or may not have contributed to the current situation I was in.  

After a pause, my friend asked, “Why are you blaming yourself?” I was silent for a moment, not fully convinced that I didn’t have a hand in it, but beginning to see where she was going.

What I did or didn’t do to arrive at this point was irrelevant, it was how I was treating myself that she was addressing, and asking me to acknowledge. I had been judging myself harshly for past actions -- beating myself up, as opposed to approaching the situation, and myself, with more compassion.  

 

It is a common curveball that we throw at ourselves. Making situations, which we can’t go back and remedy in retrospect, into an internal crisis.

 

Sometimes, feelings of helplessness may prompt us to convince ourselves that we have more control over a situation then we really do. And when we experience a setback, a crisis, or any other misfortune, we are left with feelings of inadequacy, pain or anger for not having controlled the situation.

Now, there may be times when we can recall a failure and identify how we might have made choices that contributed to it.  And i‘m not saying there isn’t any value in reflecting on our past mistakes, seeking to understand what happened, and to view them as experiences from which one can learn.  

However, to judge or criticize ourselves for the past doesn’t serve us in our present.  Unless Elon Musk has figured out how to time travel, there is nothing we can do to fix our past.  Those mistakes or regrets are just pages in our history book and the best we can do is glean information from them and endeavor to do better.

 

Self compassion is a necessary component in moving forward.

 

Experiences of trauma, or any other kind of suffering, pain or humiliation, can leave us with internalized feelings of hostility and blame.  Some of us may be angry with ourselves for not controlling the event(s), whether this means stopping the event(s) from happening or believing we deserved it because we were in some way defective, or complicit.  These negative beliefs often lead to isolation and shame which prevent us from healthy connection.  But the irony is that we ALL experience trauma, suffering and humiliation. No one is alone in this. Compassion allows for us to see this and connect - not only to others - but to ourselves as well. When we can face and process our experiences from a perspective of kindness and understanding, then we can begin to heal.

Once we accept that we are fallible, imperfect, and that we don’t have the power to control what happens to us, we begin to get closer to a place of understanding and empathy for ourselves, which then creates greater understanding and empathy for all of those around us.

Contemporary research supports the positive effects of self compassion. A few of these benefits include: healthier decision making and more supportive loving relationships.

As well as a higher sense of purpose, improved emotional intelligence and emotional regulation, and a decrease in depression and rumination.

Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer researcher and psychologist in the study of self compassion, is a go-to resource for me on the topic. She offers insight into the nature of self compassion and its' connection to biology, mindfulness, motivation and empathy. In addition, she provides an extensive list of tips and exercises to develop and practice self compassion which you can find here.

And if you, like me, have a rather loud inner critic, I would recommend Dr. Neff’s exercise on managing critical self talk (in the above link).  She offers useful tips on how to identify, understand and disarm the negative voice in your head. Taking compassion breaks has also been helpful in getting through a trying day, utilizing a mix of mindfulness and positive affirmations to put challenges into perspective. Those are just a few tools that I carry in my belt. There are a variety of exercises to try, depending on your needs.

So the next time you practice self care, I encourage you to carve out time to check in with your thoughts. What could you say or do, right now, to be a little kinder to yourself?