The Complete Guide to Self Compassion

I have a confession to make. Off late, increasingly, I get the feeling that my head is not sorted and organised as I used to think it was. There have been enough recent bursts which have led to the conclusion that it really is a messy, tangled web. At the times that I give in to the mess and don’t know how to deal with it, I sometimes have minor meltdowns. That’s when my husband or personal Yoda as I like to call him comes into the play with his usual refrain – you are too hard on yourself, Aparna. You need to practice more self-compassion.

Like most self-assumingly tough people, I thought of it as a fluffy up-in-the-air concept that I don’t really need to bother myself about. But then, my husband has this insidious knack of getting in my head. This time was no different. I gradually began to explore this concept and it opened a whole new world. As has become my habit, I knew that I would be far wiser if I shared it and maybe some readers would be more enriched as they read it.

What is self compassion?

The phrase self compassion has two very evident terms – self and compassion. The most well-known name in exploring this concept (and someone who also seems to have worked hard at raising awareness for it) is Kristen Neff, an Associate Professor in the University of Texas at Austin. She does a neat job of defining the three steps to compassion. Let me walk you through it.

The google definition of compassion comes to – “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”. Neff does a neat job of describing three steps to getting to compassion. First, noticing that someone is suffering. This can be a homeless person or even a friend not doing well. Second, you feel the pain (empathy) or atleast some concern (sympathy). This generally happens either when you practice gratitude or when you feel deeply for the person. Third and most important, compassion comes with the realisation that, to put it in not-so-delicate terms, – “shit happens”.  With that realisation, you are in a place to provide comfort through words or actions to the person that you realise is suffering.

When it comes to self-compassion, it involves practicing all these steps on yourself. You would be forgiven for assuming that it should come so much easier with the thought process that humans inherently look out for themselves.

But, research shows that self compassion is far more difficult. When we mess up or find ourselves in a spot, our inner disciplinarian surprisingly decides to rear it’s head and roar. With the two years that we have seen off as a human race, more people are waking up to the need for us to hone and practice this vital skill of self compassion.

What makes self-compassion such an essential implement in our mental well-being toolkit?

Why do we need self compassion

It’s surprising that we humans should need an elevator or blog pitch for being kind to ourselves. But, my personal experience suggests unless we are sold on the idea we aren’t going to do the work that goes into honing it.

1. You are your first port of call

This, to me, is one of the biggest bits of it. We often forget that we spend the most time with ourselves. Unless we are genuinely kind in those conversations, it can mean hurling down a steep slope of self incriminations. Additionally, even an army of the kindest, most well meaning external support system will count for notch if it is over compensated by an ugly self bashing talk.

2. It aids in growth mindset

Some time back I wrote about growth mindset and how embracing failure is a big part of it. Turns out, self compassion is a crucial ally to honing a growth mindset. Let’s face it. Failure is not easy. But, when you decide to be a lifelong learner by adopting a growth mindset, failure is an unskippable step on that journey. At those moments, having a strong self-compassion muscle will help you move forward rather than a self-defeating voice to beat you into submission.

3. Makes us more human

As humans we are bound to make mistakes or head into uncontrollable situations. At those times, it is important to acknowledge it as a part of the human experience. As Kristin Neff puts it, instead of feeling isolated with all possible bad coincidences and tough breaks happening only to you, with self-compassion you tend to come to the conclusion that to be human is to err. Alternately, you also learn to focus more on your actionable and giving shorter end of the stick to the aspects that you can’t control.

4. It works better than mere self-esteem

This to me was a big one. Self-esteem is where you choose to focus only on your positive aspects, drawing from the elevated sense of self. On the other hand, self-compassion allows you to accept if you make mistakes. It allows you to embrace any possible feeling that’s getting you down and yet helps you turn around. In some ways, self-compassion allows you to be you, with whatever  flaws go into that wonderfully unique composition.

In fact, there is a wonderful Harvard Business Review article that details out a research concluding exactly this fact:

We found that those who were encouraged to treat themselves with compassion reported being more motivated to make amends and to never repeat the transgression than participants who were encouraged to respond to the transgression in a self-esteem-boosting manner and those in the control group. 

Give yourself a break: The Power of Self-Compassion, Serena Chan

5. Good for mental health

Honestly, the first four points should tie up neatly into this fact. But, it is proven that self compassion is good for our mental health. And if this article is to be believed,

An explosion of research into self-compassion over the last decade has shown its benefits for well-being. Individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression. 

-The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion, Christin Neff & Christopher Germer

Ways to start on the path of self-compassion

While all this is good, it is also a common experience that self-compassion is not easy. In fact, it comes to us as naturally as knowing how to do trigonometry. But, if you are keen to make a start then this starter kit should help.

1. Ask yourself – “How would I respond to a friend?”

When you find yourself in a spot or a funk of dark mood, it could be a time when your inner chatter is going on at hypermode. It could be about all the mistakes in the past or even your self worth or worse still why something that you are working towards would not work.

In such instances, split yourself into two. I do not mean, literally! But, imagine that the problem you are facing is really being experienced by a close friend. If need be, talk to yourself in the third person by taking your name.

Suppose you failed a competitive exam despite studying well for it. If you called a friend for a shoulder, which path would they take? Would it be to say – “Yeah, well, what can you do? You are dumb and just not made for this line of work. You should not have even wasted time on preparing for it as it is really beyond you”.

Or would the friend say – “Hey, only 65% people pass the exam in the first shot. You gave it your best shot and in that attempt I am pretty sure you made some headway to learn much more than you knew before that. This is not the end of the world. It is an exam you can schedule at any point. Just take a break from thinking about it and start again tomorrow. Rome was not built in a day”.

In essence, try to be a kind friend to yourself the likes of which you are probably practicing for your circle of close friends anyway.

2. Catch your thoughts

How many times have you really been aware of the thoughts emerging in your head? Or like most people you let them run rampant like wild weeds left to grow?

While spoken words make a big difference in the outer world, inner thoughts can define the person we are to ourselves. Be conscious of the thought flow in your head. The minute you think the self-critique is getting unnecessary or nasty, just slay it. No questions asked. It anyway has enough lives in it’s battery pack to sprout up if there was any merit to it.

3. Don’t miss the forest for the trees

This is something I have to often remind myself of. For the last few Decembers, while most people around me are in holiday cheer I am always wondering whether I did justice to the 365 days that are almost over. I end up moping around till my Yoda comes up with newer ways of asking me to chill.

 I am currently working on setting up Elementum Money as a financial advisory business. When there is no pressing timeline or external disciplining force, getting yourself to do essential things is an uphill task. There are days when I wonder if I will ever get anything done or should I just get a tattoo on my forehead proclaiming – “Procrastinating Lazy Bum”.

But, in most such instances, as my self-compassionate voice tries to rise over the crowd of accusatory tones, I try to remember just one thing. What I am fretting about is a small instance. There is a long way to go. Finally, life is a marathon. For every twist and bend in the path, you can’t wonder whether you are pacing it well enough or even if the path is going to be as envisioned. Most times it feels easier to move forward, one step at a time, when this thinking begins to clear the remaining fog in the head.

4. Do some sensory self-care

Following on from the above point, sometimes our head likes to mess with us. If we feed that feeling, it can snowball into much bigger proportions. But, putting our body in a feel-good frame of mind often influences the brain to have a similar feel-good sensations too. This temporary distraction can lead the brain away to more productive lines of thought. In that matter, it helps to indulge in some sensory pleasures.

Have some comfort food. Listen to some peppy, uplifting music and even dance to it if you feel like it. Cry it out, if that helps. Go for a walk. Notice the flowers around you. Get a massage and feel your tense muscles relax. I am lucky to live in a coastal city. So, going to the shore to listen to the waves and feel the sea spray is my go-to remedy.

Sleep on it after some of these activities and generally it will put the demons in your head temporarily on holiday.

5. Write yourself a note

Although I read about this as a suggestion in one of my google searches for the post, I am a bigger believer in something related – journaling. I have been journaling since the age of sixteen. Currently, I journal in all possible ways. I have an ongoing word doc for each year in my laptop which is more of a pensieve for any purging of thoughts that I might need to do. To that, often the notes I type on the phone while on-the-go get added. I also do a very basic bullet journal after trying out the elaborate versions which often led to a lapsing of the habit. Plus, this year I have started an interesting new thing thanks to a friend’s idea. I have started jotting down what happened in the day in three small lines. However, on each page that day will be documented across 9 years.

So, yeah, for me journaling has been a big blessing. If it doesn’t come that easy to you yet you feel the need to improve your level of self compassion, start with writing yourself a note. Tell yourself why anything that is bothering you is temporary and you are good enough for whatever life has in store. Be creative or curse, whatever works better for you. But, don’t forget to be kind to yourself.

In this world, where we are still wondering if we have seen off those two dark years and yet have already entered a dangerous war, feeling for others comes easy to the extent of leading to compassion fatigue. But, when we start turning that lens of compassion into a mirror for ourselves is when we can truly make a difference, to our lives and to the world.

Do you feel the need for self-compassion? Are you able to practice it? What steps help you hone it? Let me know in the comments below.

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