Being kind to yourself
Theory vs. practice
I’ve known about self-compassion for a while. Kristin Neff’s seminal text has been on my bookshelf for years; I’ve watched YouTube clips and listened to podcasts about it. I find myself recommending to my children, my clients, my friends, that they soothe the critical voice they have for themselves and cultivate inwardly the same kindness they would show towards their dearest friends. I’ve recognised for ages that self-compassion is good, resourceful, helpful. I really do believe that. I’ve accumulated lots of ideas, well-evidenced theory and learning. It’s this last couple of weeks though that I’ve really come to focus on my own practice of self-compassion when I noticed it lacking. And this is what has inspired me not only to write this article, but to record an Outdoor Coach podcast which includes your own self-compassion practice to take outdoors as you walk, sit or simply observe what’s outside.
A critical voice
You might be familiar with some of these criticisms at the moment –
‘You should be more productive!’; ‘I don’t deserve for this to work’; ‘You’re such an inadequate friend to those people really struggling – why are you not supporting them more?’; ‘I can’t believe you’re so tired when all you’ve done is be at home all day!’ These voices (and more) have been loud in my own head recently, more insistent and repetitive than before, more judgemental. I realised I needed to take a spot of my own advice. I took down Kristin Neff’s book and started there.
Self-compassion and self-esteem are not the same thing
Neff is clear to differentiate between self-compassion and self-esteem. Self-esteem, she explains, is generated from a whole range of factors, including feedback we get from others, how much we’re able to achieve, how we regard ourselves physically and so on. It’s unpredictable – not a stable base – because it is contingent on so many changeable factors over which we have no control.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, comes from within, it’s a practice and something which is accessible to all of us, regardless of our situation, however difficult, unique or changeable that might be. We can tap into it whenever it feels useful regardless of the circumstances.
3 elements to self-compassion
Self-compassion has 3 elements: mindfulness, kindness and common humanity.
Mindfulness is our awareness that we might be struggling right now. To acknowledge that and turn towards it rather than trying to bat it away or tell ourselves we ought to be doing better.
Kindness is our response to that awareness – what would you say to a friend experiencing that struggle?
And common humanity is remembering that it’s not just you – everyone has their own struggles to deal with and in fact that shared human experience is what connects us and contributes to our sense of belonging.
Bringing all three factors together results in self-compassion.
Why be kind to yourself?
The research suggests that people who cultivate self-compassion have lower levels of stress, depression and shame; they have higher levels of positivity, optimism and life-satisfaction and a better immune function too.
Self-compassion is a source of strength and resilience, it increases our motivation and enhances our relationships.
Help others while looking after you
Another powerful characteristic of self compassion is that the mental state we cultivate for ourselves, whether that’s calmness, acceptance or positivity, we pass on consciously and unconsciously to others through our connection with them.
You will have experienced times, perhaps, where you’ve been calm in a crisis or responded in a considered and compassionate way to a difficult situation. You may have noticed that others have almost absorbed your mood and in turn changed theirs. This is particularly noticeable in interactions with children: a child who is upset or angry is unlikely to respond positively to an adult experiencing the same heightened emotion, while the calmness or kindness of an adult may help alleviate their distress, not through reasoned argument or punishment, but by unconsciously passing on their own, resourceful state.
So self-compassion is in fact one of the kindest things you can do for other people.
What gets in the way of being kind?
It’s worth noting that there are things which can get in the way of practicing self-compassion, not least ourselves. Maybe we believe that self-compassion will lead us to be more selfish or self-obsessed, or maybe self-compassion is like self-pity, a despondent state or somewhere we don’t want to dwell for too long. Kristin Neff is emphasises that especially with practice, self-compassion is something that can enhance our relationships, our motivation and our wellbeing. She encourages us to take a self-compassion test so we draw our attention to our current state, acknowledge how we feel towards ourselves and use that as a starting point for moving on.
The practice of self-compassion
There are many ways we can practice and develop our self-compassion that you’ll find in the literature. You can listen to my self-compassion podcast of course, which guides you through your own exploration of self-compassion through the outdoors! Or you could write a letter to yourself from the perspective of a friend (real or imaginary) who loves you unconditionally.
Write a letter
- What would this friend say about an inadequacy you feel in yourself (the thing that leads you to feel a sense of failure or imperfection, for example) from their perspective of unconditional love?
- How would this friend share with you the kindness and compassion they feel towards you?
- What kind words would they use to express how they feel about the pain you experience when you judge yourself so harshly?
- How would your friend explain to you that what you feel is human and that everyone has strengths and weaknesses?
- What compassionate suggestions would your friend make which would make a difference for you right now?
When you have written the letter, come back to it at another time and notice the strong sense of love, kindness, care and compassion within it and your friend’s desire for your health and happiness. Let this feeling be absorbed into you. Feel it comfort you and lift you and know that acceptance, love and connection are yours.
A few questions to get you started
And finally, if you’d like to take a step today towards greater self-compassion, here are a few questions to consider:
- How would your life be different if you and for the people around you if you were to give yourself the compassion you need?
- How would it be to hear for yourself, from yourself, the voice you would use for a dear friend?
- How will you integrate the practice of self-compassion into your life?
- What actions will you take? Perhaps there’s a first step?
- What is your commitment to yourself and cultivating yourself-compassion?