Many of us have a judgmental inner voice. A way to gauge that voice is by considering the first thoughts that go through your mind when you make a mistake. For example, if you accidentally broke a glass or spilled coffee on yourself, what would be the first thing that comes to mind? For many of us, the self-talk that follows might be, “you’re such a klutz!” “what’s wrong with you?” or “I can’t believe you did that!” We can be pretty ruthless to ourselves. Negative self-talk often entails magnifying the negative and filtering out the positive aspects of situations, automatically blaming ourselves when things go wrong, and catastrophizing, or assuming the worst-case scenario. These thoughts can be so automatic that we don’t even realize how hard we are being on ourselves.
It’s not just that these negative thought patterns contribute to low mood and feelings of guilt or shame, but evidence also suggests that high levels of self-criticism and negative self-talk often accompany more severe psychological concerns including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders (Warren et al., 2016). Instead of criticizing yourself for your inadequacies or shortcomings, what if you were able to cultivate an inner voice that was kind and understanding? Practicing self-compassion means acknowledging our pain and suffering, honoring and accepting our humanness, and caring for ourselves with warmth, caring, and kindness (Neff, 2018). The research is promising in suggesting that adopting self-compassion is beneficial to our mental health and overall well-being (Neff et al., 2017; Rabon et al., 2019).
For most of us, the “self” part of self-compassion is the most difficult. Many of us are better at having compassion for others than ourselves. Self-compassion entails taking that warm, kind, and caring approach that we often take towards others and applying it to ourselves. According to the Dalai Lama, “Compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive — it’s not empathy alone — but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving-kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is loving-kindness)” (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 2016). So how do we take the principle of compassion and apply it to ourselves? Here are some suggestions, including recommendations from Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist whose research focuses on self-compassion:
· Use guided meditations to help you cultivate loving-kindness
· Be mindful and take a balanced approach to difficult emotions
o Mindfulness, which includes a non-judgmental stance, of our emotions is crucial to self-compassion. We cannot ignore our pain and practice compassion for that pain at the same time. This does not mean letting our emotions control us, or getting swept up in them, but instead neither exaggerating nor suppressing them. Mindfulness and acknowledgement of our own pain and suffering is akin to the “wisdom” described in the Buddhist philosophy of compassion.
· Practice self-kindness over self-judgment
o Acknowledge pain or discomfort when you fail or feel inadequate and practice positive-self talk that promotes warmth and understanding. It can help to place your hand over your heart as you do this.
· Acknowledge and embrace our common humanity
o Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human experience. Focusing on what we have in common with others can help to reduce feelings of isolation, disconnection, and inadequacy by allowing us to zoom our perspective out from our narrow, self-focus to acknowledging the rest of humanity. As Dr. Neff describes, “the recognition of common humanity entailed by self-compassion also allows us to be more understanding and less judgmental about our inadequacies.”
Starting to work on self-compassion can feel almost silly at first. We may initially practice a meditation in which we wish ourselves happiness and love, yet find it difficult to really connect with those wishes. Like meditation, mindfulness, or psychotherapy, the key is practice. Learning to change patterns of automatic negative self-talk and instead respond with loving-kindness towards ourselves takes time and effort. The stronger our inner critic, the more likely it is that self-compassion will take time to cultivate. Even though it may not feel natural at first, practicing self-compassion may mean that the next time you break a glass or spill coffee on yourself, instead of jumping to the negative (or catastrophizing), your first thought may instead be, “may I be well” or “may I be happy.” That sort of shift can drastically improve your mood and outlook on life.
1. Neff, Kristin. 2018. “What is compassion?” http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/
2. Warren, R., Smeets, E., Neff, K. 2016. Self-criticism and Self-compassion. Current Psychiatry 15 (12). 18-32.
3. Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. In J.Doty (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Ch. 27. Oxford UniversityPress.
4. Rabon, J. K., Hirsch, J. K., Kaniuka, A. R., Sirois, F., Brooks, B. D., & Neff, K. (2019). Self-Compassion and Suicide Risk in Veterans: When the Going Gets Tough, Dothe Tough Benefit More from Self-Compassion?. Mindfulness, 10(12), 2544-2554.
5. XIV Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya, Dalai Lama, and Thupten Jinpa. The Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings. Simon and Schuster, 2005.