Have Compassion for Yourself

Practice of the Week
Have Compassion for Yourself

Category: SLOGANS TO LIVE BY: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

"The more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves,
the more we have available to give to others.
" -Kristin Neff

Kristin Neff on Self-Compassion -- 3 mins

Life is full of wonderful experiences. But it has its hard parts as well, such as physical and mental discomfort, ranging from subtle to agonizing. This is the realm of suffering, broadly defined.

When someone you care about suffers, you naturally have compassion: the wish that a being not suffer, usually with a feeling of sympathetic concern. For example, if your child falls and hurts himself, you want him to be out of pain; if you hear that a friend is in the hospital, or out of work, or going through a divorce, you feel for her and hope that everything will be all right. Compassion is in your nature: it's an important part of the neural and psychological systems we evolved to nurture children, bond with mates, and hold together "the village it takes to raise a child" (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas 2010).

You can also have compassion for yourself -- which is not self-pity. You're simply recognizing that "this is tough, this hurts," and bringing the same warmhearted wish for suffering to lessen or end that you would bring to any dear friend grappling with the same pain, upset, or challenge as you.

Studies have shown that self-compassion has many benefits (Leary et al. 2007; Neff 2009), including
  • Reducing self-criticism
  • Lowering stress hormones like cortisol
  • Increasing self-soothing, self-encouragement, and other aspects of resilience
  • Helping to heal any shortages of caring from others in your childhood.
That's a pretty good list!

Self-compassion usually takes only a handful of seconds. And then -- more centered and heartened -- you can go on with doing what you can to make your life better.


Maybe your back hurts, or you've had a miserable day at work, or someone has barked at you unfairly. Or, honestly, maybe you just feel bad, even depressed. Whatever it is, some self-compassion could help. Now what?

Self-compassion comes naturally for some people (particularly those with a well-nurtured childhood). But it's not that easy for a lot of us, especially those who are self-critical, driven, stoic, or think it's self-indulgent to be caring toward themselves.

So here are some steps for calling up self-compassion, which you could blend together as self-compassion becomes easier for you:
  • Take a moment to acknowledge your difficulties: your challenges and suffering.
  • Bring to mind the feeling of being with someone you know cares about you. Perhaps a dear friend, a family member, a spirit, God . . . even a pet. Let yourself feel that you matter to this being, who wants you to feel good and do well in life.
  • Bring to mind your difficulties, and imagine that this being who cares about you is feeling and expressing compassion for you. Imagine his or her facial expression, gestures, stance, and attitude toward you. Let yourself receive this compassion, taking in its warmth, concern, and goodwill. Open to feeling more understood and nurtured, more peaceful and settled. The experience of receiving caring primes circuits in your brain to give it.
  • Imagine someone you naturally feel compassion for: perhaps a child, or a family member. Imagine how you would feel toward that person if he or she were dealing with whatever is hard for you. Let feelings of compassion fill your mind and body. Extend them toward that person, perhaps visualized as a kind of light radiating from you (maybe from your heart). Notice what it's like to be compassionate.
  • Now, extend the same sense of compassion toward yourself. Perhaps accompany it with words like these, heard softly in the back of your mind: May this pain pass . . . may things improve for me . . . may I feel less upset over time. Have some warmth for yourself, some acknowledgment of your own difficulties and pain, some wish for things to get better. Feel that this compassion is sinking in to you, becoming a part of you, soothing and strengthening you.
For Journaling

When you're having a difficulty, use your journal to be your own "compassionator." First, write a paragraph in which you describe the difficulty. Then write a second paragraph in which you imagine yourself in the position of someone who cares about you. Acknowledge that the difficulty is tough, challenging, or painful, and express compassion. (Note: try to avoid suggesting ways to "fix" the "problem." That's a different exercise! Right now just express compassion for the situation you're in.) Third, shift back into your original voice and write a response to the compassion you've received. Are you thankful? How are you feeling now?

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Kristin Neff's TEDx Talk on Self-Compassion (and how we need self-compassion, not self-esteem) -- 19 mins

See Kristin Neff's website on self-compassion: http://www.self-compassion.org/

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