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5 Tips for Practicing Self-Compassion

By: Gina Messina

Have you ever beat yourself up or said unkind words to yourself? If you’re like most of us, your answer is probably “yes.” Especially as women, we tend to be our own worst critics, and we usually treat ourselves in cruel ways that we’d never treat other people!

But there’s a different way. Self-compassion is the practice of being kind and understanding with ourselves — not only when we succeed, but when we fail, too.

Here, we’ve compiled 5 exercises you can use to start practicing self-compassion. These practices are based on extensive research by Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist who specializes in self-compassion. Try to incorporate them into your daily schedule as much as possible. You can use these 5 exercises at any time, day or night. They may be especially helpful when you’re tempted to be unkind to yourself.

Treat Yourself Like a Friend

Often, we treat ourselves so much worse than we treat other people in our lives. For example, when you make a careless mistake, you might find yourself saying something like: “I’m so dumb! How could I have done that?”

But you’d probably never say such a cruel thing to someone else, especially not to someone you love.

One way to practice self-compassion is to treat yourself like you would a friend. Think of a time when a dear friend felt really bad about themselves or was going through a rough time. It could be a time when your friend made a mistake, or felt embarrassed or ashamed about something.

What would you say to this friend? What kind of tone would you use? Write this down.

Now, compare this to how you usually treat yourself when you’re feeling bad. Is there a difference? And if so, why do you think that is? Simply noticing what a big difference there is between the way you treat others and the way you treat yourself can make a big difference. Resolve to treat yourself as kindly as you treat the most important people in your life.

Loving-Kindness Meditation For Yourself

Loving-kindness meditation is an ancient practice in which we send out unconditional love toward the people in the world. But, as they say, we can’t pour from an empty cup — and we can also benefit from being on the receiving end of that love.

The basic script for a loving-kindness meditation goes like this:

“May you be happy. May you be safe. May you live with ease.”

Before sending this energy out to the world, send it to yourself. 

Find a comfortable seated position, and close your eyes if you feel comfortable. Put one hand on your chest, and the other on your belly. Slowly breathe in and out. Then, repeat the above words to yourself. Say to yourself,

“May I be happy. May I be safe. May I live with ease.” Try to receive this energy with an open heart.

You can complete this exercise day or night, and it might be especially helpful if you build up a daily practice.

Self-Compassion Journaling

Many of you may already have a journaling practice. Journaling is an excellent way to get in touch with your deepest thoughts and make sense of your experiences.

You can target your journaling toward self-compassion by writing kind words to yourself.

When you go through a difficult experience that makes you feel bad about yourself, write about it. What happened, and how are you feeling about it? Try to connect with your innermost feelings. Just become aware of your feelings without any judgment.

Now, write use your journal to practice self-compassion. According to Dr. Neff, one of the key components of self-compassion is common humanity — or realizing that we’re all human, and our experiences, no matter how painful, are always shared by the world at large.

Write about how this particular difficult experience is reflective of the larger human experience. For example, maybe you made a big mistake in front of someone you admire. This feeling of embarrassment is shared by so many people in the world. In fact, there’s likely not a single person among us who has never felt this way.

Lastly, offer yourself some words of kindness. Again, talk to yourself as you would a friend going through the same experience. If it’s helpful, you can offer these words in the form of a letter to yourself. Let yourself know that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that you’re good enough just as you are.

Write a Love Letter to Yourself

Another writing exercise for self-compassion is to write a love letter to yourself. When was the last time you explicitly appreciated yourself for all of your unique strengths? When was the last time you offered yourself loving and encouraging words?

Think about the things in life — traits, experiences, and more — that have made you feel inadequate. Now, write a love letter to yourself addressing these specific things.

Take the perspective of a friend who loves you unconditionally. It’s okay if this friend is imaginary. (If it’s too difficult to think of someone like this, try to connect to the way you feel about the loved ones in your life.)

What would this friend say to help you realize that it’s okay not to be perfect? What words would they offer to make you see that you’re good enough just as you are? What unique strengths and qualities does this friend appreciate about you? How would your friend communicate their deep caring and love for you?

Don’t hold back; no one needs to see this. If you feel uncomfortable while writing this letter to yourself, notice these feelings non-judgmentally. But don’t let these feelings stop you!

Read this letter whenever you’re tempted to be unkind to yourself. Allow the words to comfort and soothe you.

Challenge Your Inner Critic

Most of us are our own worst critics. In this exercise, you will notice, and gently challenge, the negative self-talk that goes on inside of your mind.

When you’re feeling bad about yourself, use mindfulness to notice exactly what you’re saying to yourself. What kind of words do you use to describe yourself when you’re being unkind to yourself? What tone of voice do you use? What are some key phrases that come up repeatedly?

Once you’ve noticed you’re being self-critical, gently challenge these thoughts. How can you reframe these negative words into something more accurate, helpful, and kind?

For example, maybe you’ve caught your inner critic saying something like, “What is wrong with you? You’re so stupid. You can’t do anything right.”

Notice, and examine, these words. First of all, are they even true? For example, have you really never done anything right? Could you change these words to something closer to the truth, like, “I sometimes make mistakes.”?

And what kind of tone are you using to speak to yourself? Would you talk to a dear friend with this tone? And does talking to yourself in this tone actually make anything better?

Be supportive, kind, and friendly when talking to yourself. For example, maybe you can change the above self-talk statement into something like, “My darling, you made a mistake and I know you’re not happy about it. But that’s okay; there isn’t a human being in the world who has never made a mistake. It’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s also okay to feel bad about it.”

Try to choose words that feel at least somewhat natural to you. Again, a good gauge is to talk to yourself as you would a dear friend.

By practicing self-compassion, you become kinder to yourself when you’re suffering. You deserve this as much as anyone else does. What are some other ways you practice self-compassion?Gina Messina, Ph.D., M.B.A. is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Institute for Women, Wellness & Work at Ursuline College. She is also an award winning author and certified leadership coach for women. Connect with her on her website, LinkedIn, and Instagram.