By Ann Heathcote
The first step in devising a workable, balanced and realistic strategy for practicing self-compassion starts from one important cornerstone – being kind to yourself. This might sound like a truism, or even a vague aspiration. In fact, being kinder to ourselves takes consistent effort. However, practicing self-compassion is an important goal and, if not done right, the obstacles and demands of day-to-day life will throw us off course.
Why is self-compassion so difficult?
From our careers to our home life, arguably the main reason why self-compassion and kindness towards ourselves is so hard is because our minds have a bias towards self-criticism.
We’re often told that self-criticism is vital to our personal and professional development. This is true to an extent. Our ability to analyse and evaluate our mistakes and failures is one of the biggest determinants in how successful we are with our careers and relationships. But, according to Kristin Neff, associate Professor in Human Development at the University of Austin, Texas and self-compassion expert, there comes a point where our ability to self-criticise can become harmful. Without the willingness to be kind to ourselves, self-criticism means we often attack ourselves for failure, rather than learn from it.
What are the tenets of self-compassion?
Neff identifies three core components for a successful, sustainable self-compassion strategy:
Self-kindness – the act of being kind towards yourself, particularly during moments of crisis, or during periods of high stress. This involves not being too harsh and judgemental or setting too high standards for yourself. This will, in the long run, build up your resilience to stressful and life-altering events.
A sense of common humanity – coming to the realisation that you’re part of a much bigger society, and that when you endure periods of hardship, you’re not alone. This can bring feelings of comfort and inclusivity rather than alienation.
Mindfulness – trying to take a step back and re-examine any negative thoughts you may have from a more objective viewpoint, without judgement. This means that negative or anxious thoughts are less likely to overwhelm you.
Along with these core principles of self-compassion, here are five tips to help you practice self-compassion:
1. Make time for yourself – this can be a big ask, particularly if you have a stressful, high responsibility career, family or a loved one to care for. But even carving out ten minutes a day for yourself can make all the difference in your self-compassion strategy. Time for yourself can include meditation, an exercise regime, a hobby or other goal that you are working towards; e.g. learning another language, playing a musical instrument, creative writing, a sports club. Generally, it’s also important that you look after yourself every day. This means maintaining a balanced diet, getting the requisite amount of exercise, and doing everything you can do to keep your mental and physical health at its peak.
2. Small moments of recognition – In your daily routine, take time to give yourself recognition. Whether it’s finishing a particular task at work, knocking together a kick-ass salad for your lunch, or just making sure that your Outlook calendar is tidy. It’s vital that you make time in your day to pat yourself on the back, and give yourself some positive affirmation. Like the good people at L’Oreal say, “You’re worth it.”
3. Forgive yourself – Whilst it’s important to make sure you take time to recognise your successes, it’s also important that you’re not too hard on yourself when it comes to your failures. In short – forgive yourself for failure. Hold yourself accountable for failure, but don’t beat yourself up about it. Evaluate your failures, forgive yourself, learn from it and move on.
4. Ambition and acceptance – striking a balance between forgiving your failures and rewarding successes requires taking your dreams and ambitions seriously. That means not dismissing a particular goal or ambition as a silly fantasy. That said, you also need to retain a level of acceptance that you can’t do everything. If you spend your whole time worrying that you aren’t living up to your “potential” then you will constantly be in a position where you’re unnecessarily beating yourself up. Your best way forward, when it comes to ambition, is to be as kind to yourself and as realistic as possible.
5. Cultivate an inner advocate – This strategy binds the previous four together and is vital to ensuring that you are consistently kind to yourself. Cultivating an inner advocate is vital. You need to train that voice, which defends you, reminds you of your positive worth, and tells you that your needs and ambitions are valid. In the modern world, it’s often much easier for us to listen to our inner critic. Make sure your inner advocate fights in your corner.
These may seem like a laundry list of things to juggle every day, but it’s useful to think of the tips above, not as a checklist, but as an overarching framework. These tips are designed to create a narrative for your day-to-day life – reminding you that you’re a worthwhile person, that you’re not alone in the world, and that you’ve got a lot to give to the world.
Ann Heathcote opened The Worsley Centre for Psychotherapy and Counselling in 2001, as a centre for the provision of professional psychotherapeutic services. The Worsley Centre is a warm and welcoming environment for people wishing to undertake counselling and psychotherapy.