How to Learn to Treat Yourself with Self-Compassion

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Self-Compassion is often something that’s hard for many of us. Yet practicing self-compassion can significantly increase our happiness and make us more successful. Here’s why you should treat yourself with self-compassion and tips on how to learn to treat yourself more self-compassionately.

I came down this morning, took one look at my crumb-covered kitchen counter, and said out loud, “Oh, God, I am such a messy person.” Do you see what I did there? The kitchen counter was undeniably messy, but I took that one fact and used it to insult my entire personality. In fact, I said – out loud – something I would never, ever say, or even think, about another person.

This time, unlike most other times, I actually heard myself recognized what I was doing. I also chose a different response than the one I usually fall back on when I realize I’m treating myself too harshly. (Ironically, my typical reaction is to say to myself, very sternly, “Why are you always beating yourself up? Stop doing that!”) 

Instead, I took a moment, cleaned off the counter, and then sat down at my new clean work environment to think about how I’d like to start treating myself better. I’m just a little tired of living with a nagging, shrew who criticizes my every move.

I found this article in the New York Times to be very helpful in understanding just what my issue is. I lack self-compassion. It also helped clarify why I have resist treating myself as nicely as I would treat anyone else; I worry without harsh self-talk, I’ll fall into what I perceive to be my naturally lazy and self-indulgent ways.

That’s not true, of course. Most people do much better work for a supportive boss than a harsh taskmaster. I know from my own life that exercising is a breeze when I’m feeling happy and confident and a joyless slog when I’m working out because I feel like a “fat, lazy pig.”

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What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem, by the way. Self-esteem is based on your own judgment of yourself and, as such, can be too tied to accomplishments. If you feel like you’re on the right track, your self-esteem goes up, and if you feel like you’re not accomplishing what you should be, your self-esteem goes down. That can keep you on a perpetual high/low roller-coaster. 

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is being a friend to yourself no matter what. It’s the loving voice that says, “I know you don’t feel like exercising right now, but you’ll feel so much better if you do even a little bit.” It’s the soothing words to let you know that trying something that didn’t work out isn’t really a failure, but merely another step closer to your ultimate goal. Self-compassion reminds you that everyone struggles; that struggle is just part of being a human.

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The Benefits of Self-Compassion

People who regularly show themselves self-compassion are happier, more optimistic, and more grateful than people who are hard on themselves. Self-Compassion also increases our motivation for self-improvement, which at first seems a little counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But I know I’m least likely to want to try something new when the voice in my brain is reminding me of all the ways I’ve failed in the past.

I’ll add another benefit of self-compassion that appeals to me as a parent: it models for our kids how we’d like them to treat themselves when they struggle. If you have a child in college or new to the workforce, they will inevitably have a few struggles. If we can model for them the skill of self-compassion, they will be able to bounce back so much faster.

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Myths About Self-Compassion

So why weren’t we all taught to be loving and kind to ourselves as kids? Why is the first voice in my head the harsh and nagging one? It wasn’t because my mom was cruel and unloving; far from it. It was because she, like so many of us growing up, believed some of the myths about being too kind to ourselves:

Self-Compassion is Just Feeling Sorry for Yourself

Nope! In fact, if we acknowledge our bad feelings and failures, we can move past them more quickly.

Self-Compassion is Narcissistic

On the contrary, studies have found that those with high self-esteem tend to be more narcissistic.

Self-Compassion is Selfish

It’s actually very much like the classic adage, “Put your oxygen mask on first.” When we show compassion to ourselves, we are more compassionate to others as well.

Myths about self-compassion

Three Exercises to Help You Learn to Practice Self-Compassion

I took this quiz to determine how self-compassionate I am, and I’m just going to say very gently that I scored a little low. I found this quiz and many excellent resources at the helpful site Self-Compassion.Org

Here are three exercises to help you learn to practice self-compassion.

Exercise #1: Flip the Script – Free Printable Self-Compassion Exercise and Worksheet

I developed the exercise from a tip I learned on, of all places, the podcast My Favorite Murder and I’ve found it very helpful. I made a few tweaks to it and created a worksheet that you can print out and use whenever you need.

I call this exercise “Flip the Script.” You can use it any time you catch yourself talking to yourself in a harsh and critical manner. Write down on the worksheet exactly what you said to yourself and how it made you feel. Really go into detail.

If you’ve had a lifetime of practice speaking harshly to yourself, it can be hard to know how speak lovingly to yourself, so here’s a trick to help you flip the script. Imagine someone who knows you well and who loves loves cares for you talking to you about your issue. What would they say? Write that down.

If you don’t have anyone in your life like that, it’s perfectly ok to think of a fictional character or someone on TV or in the movies. What would Mr. Rogers say to you?

If you cry, by the way, you’re doing it right.

To print this worksheet, simply right click to save to your computer. If you would like a 2-page PDF version with more room to write, then click here.

Free Printable Self-Compassion Exercise Worksheet

Exercise #2: Loving Kindness Meditation

Sit quietly and reflect on the following phrase:

May I be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May I be happy and contented. May I be healthy in the whole to whatever degree possible. May I experience ease of well-being.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Repeat it over and over again until you really feel safe and warm. Jon Kabat-Zinn explains the power of this phrase in this article and how it ultimately connects us first to ourselves by helping us feel safe, then to our fellow humans when we extend it out to them, and finally to the universe itself. The article also contains a guided meditation you can follow along with.

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Exercise #3: Practice Mindful Self-Compassion

When practicing mindful self-compassion, we notice our feelings nonjudgmentally and do not suppress them, but we also do not exaggerate them. If you feel you’ve failed in some way, it’s all too easy to jump straight into either self-recrimination or trying to fix the problem. Instead, take a moment to acknowledge the fact that failure is a painful feeling and console yourself as you would console a friend.

Instead, take a moment to follow the steps in the graphic below. Acknowledge your feelings, offer yourself a bit of compassion, and then continue about your day.

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