What’s All This Self-Compassion Talk About

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A hot topic in the realm of health and wellness is self-compassion. After an incredibly difficult few years, showing oneself grace and love is something we all need to incorporate more into our lives. Self-compassion is something that not only feeds strength back into your own life, but also into the lives of those around you.

We all have a critical voice. But how we face negative influences like self-doubt has a major impact on our overall wellness, spanning our mental, physical, social and emotional health. So, what is self-compassion? Why is it so hard to do and how can we start to incorporate more self-compassion practices into our lives? We’ll start to answer these questions below.

First things first—we have to disclaim that the process of learning about and striving to be more self-compassionate requires a little bit of self-compassion. Any new skill takes time and grace. Give yourself kudos for taking the first step.

What is self-compassion?

Luckily, self-compassion is a pretty simple concept to wrap your mind around. Simply put, self-compassion means showing yourself the same grace and understanding you show others when giving compassion to them. Kristin Neff, co-founder of the center for mindful self-compassion describes it as,

“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

What are the benefits of self-compassion?

The opposite of self-compassion is self-criticism, which has a heavy toll on our minds and bodies. Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the New York Times that self-criticism can “lead to ruminative thoughts that interfere with our productivity, and it can impact our bodies by stimulating inflammatory mechanisms that lead to chronic illness and accelerate aging”.

On the flip side, studies show that self-compassion supports motivation and positive change. Specifically greater personal improvement through a sense of heightened acceptance and causes us to adjust positively in the face of errors and regret.

Why is practicing self-compassion so hard?

Our brains naturally assign a good or bad value to all things in order to help us survive and evolve. Through this recognition process we learn, grow, and correct for the future. Things like intuition build from how we process our experiences. But this good and bad assigning process is not always helpful when it spirals into a critical analysis of everything we think, do and speak.

With this, all people have a natural “negativity bias”. Psychologists describe this as an instinct to make negative experiences seem more significant that they really are. We’ve evolved to nitpick our flaws and mistakes.

In short, we are programmed to repeat a pattern of recognizing our faults, mistakes, and errors as something bad and zone in on that negativity, driving change in the future for survival.

Flipping the switch

Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research at the Center for Mindfulness, studies the process of using self-compassion to “reprogram our brains and hack the reward-based learning system”.

Luckily, our brains naturally prefer a less painful experience when given the option. This means that we can re-train our natural negative reaction to disappointment to something rehabilitative instead, spurring a growth-state.

For example, our brains would choose taking a moment of reflection, a pause, or a deep breath, over restless hours of self-doubt at 2 a.m. when given the choice. Slowly, through incorporating self-compassion practices into our lives, we re-teach our brain to begin with love and understanding—the less painful experience. This then gives us space for growth in the absence of self-criticism.

Kristin Neff has found that the number one barrier to self-compassion is a “fear of being complacent and losing your edge”. However, studies following those who practice self-compassion show the exact opposite, where self-compassion leads to greater achievement than self-criticism does.

Self-criticism is not as powerful of a motivator as is an awareness of self that understands and welcomes mistakes. Self-compassion gives a space where fear no longer holds us back.

Ready to give it a try? Here are the three elements.

There are three main components to self-compassion. Each are an important part to extending yourself love and compassion. At the beginning of 2021, The Whole U led a group in self-compassion. For each of the 3 elements below, you can watch a recorded webinar that gives a deep dive into what the element is and how to incorporate it more into your life.

1. Self-kindness vs self-judgment

The first element is about understanding that it’s okay to make mistakes. No one is perfect, and when we mess up, we can show ourselves love and kindness instead of ignoring our pain or criticizing ourselves to no end. This is often considered one of the harder parts to practicing self-compassion. Notice what your personal narrative is when you make mistakes and how those feelings sit in your physical body.

2. Common humanity vs. isolation

The second element brings us back to reality in recognizing that we all share in the human experience, which is going to include setbacks, falls, blunders, and mess-ups. When we are frustrated with parts of our lives and isolate in our pain, we further ostracize ourselves. Self-compassion calls us to remember that, we’re only human and normal like everyone else! And how wonderful is that—we have a shared experience.

3. Mindfulness vs. over-identification

The third element is one that you may already be practicing or have tried before. Mindfulness is a process by which we approach our lives, thoughts, and feelings with a space for recognition and acknowledgement. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state where we observe thoughts and feelings without suppressing or denying them. This gives us the freedom to feel without being swept away in those feelings or bottling them.

At the end of the day, self-compassion is about showing yourself the same acceptance and understanding that you would show a friend or loved one when facing setbacks. It’s a practice that feeds more life into your physical body and mental and emotional health. But it’s also a practice that takes continuous work.

Beginning with simple journaling, trying a mindful approach, and learning more about your pre-set negativity is a great place to start. Wherever you are, you’re taking time to practice more self-care and radical love. Keep doing your best and give yourself a pat on the back.