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In her popular book, Self-Compassion, psychologist Kristin Neff, Ph.D., describes how she used years of research to develop a simple model of self-compassion with three elements of learning to be kind to yourself.  Self compassion isn’t a practice that we do naturally – in fact we are much more likely to beat ourselves up, to criticise ourselves in a way we would never do to people we love – “Why on earth do you just do that? He must have thought you were an idiot! Why are you always so stupid?!”

This practice is not something we can necessarily accept intellectually, but giving it a try every so often, and just seeing what happens is, in my own experience, one of the most powerful things we can do:

What is self-compassion?

It works like this: First, you can deliberately choose to see yourself with self-kindness instead of harsh self-judgment. You can opt to practice kindness by treating yourself as you would someone you love and care about. Second, you can choose between seeing yourself in isolation and believing you’re the only one who’s suffering versus seeing your common humanity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, how could you NOT be feeling like this?! Seeing yourself as human provides comfort in realising that your suffering is not unique to you, but an experience that everyone has from time to time. Third, you can choose to accept a difficult situation or experience without getting totally wrapped up in it and drowning in a sea of self-blame and misery!

The simple steps in the practice of self-compassion

  1. Think of a situation in your life that is difficult and is causing you stress. For this practice, especially if you are new to it, it’s better to choose something that is moderately difficult in your life, rather than overwhelming. 
  2. Call the situation to mind and get in touch with what happened or what you think might happen. 
  3. Now say to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering.” This acknowledgment is a form of mindfulness—of noticing what is going on for you emotionally in the present moment, without judging that experience as good or bad. You can also say to yourself, “This hurts” or “This is stress.” Use whatever statement feels most natural to you.
  4. Next, say to yourself, “Suffering is a part of life.” This is a recognition of your common humanity with others—that all people have trying experiences, and these experiences give you something in common with the rest of humanity rather than mark you as abnormal or deficient. Other options for this statement include “Other people feel this way,” “I’m not alone,” or “We all struggle in our lives.”
  5. Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch on your chest, and say, “May I be kind to myself.” You can also consider whether there is another specific phrase that would speak to you in that particular situation. Some examples: “May I accept myself as I am,” or “I’m Ok.”

An example

Take the example of a first time mother, about to take her child to pre-school. She feels scared, sad, and above all – guilty. Guilt fuels the harsh self critic that says “how could you force your child to go into a new and challenging environment, alone? What kind of parent are you? You are a failure!” How can this new mother begin to practice self-compassion?

Step one is for her to become mindful of what she’s feeling in the present moment — simply to be aware that she’s in pain. She might say something like, “This is hard. It hurts.” Step two is to understand that this kind of suffering is part of the human condition. It’s part of our common humanity. She might say something like, “It’s not just me. And it’s not a personal thing. It’s hard for most new mothers to put their child into day care – especially their precious first born!”

Step three is to offer self-kindness. A good way to start is by shifting basic physiology. As mammals, we’re soothed by physical touch. So the new mother might put her hands over her heart, signaling to her body that it can ease out of a threat state.

She might ask herself: “What would I say or do for a friend who was in the same situation? I wouldn’t berate her the way I’m berating myself. I’d probably tell her she’s trying really hard to be the best mother she can, and the fact that she’s so distressed shows how deeply she cares about her child. Maybe after she’s dropped off her child on the first day, we’ll go for a coffe and have a chat, I can share my own stories of being in exactly that situation and she can take a few minutes to regroup before continuing with her day.”  Practicing self compassion, the new mother can say similar words to herself  – treat herself just like she would treat her friend. 

This practice can be used any time of day or night. If you practice it in moments of relative calm, it might become easier for you to experience the three parts of self-compassion—mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness—when you need them most.

Self Compassion Guided Meditations  Kristen Neff   Chris Germer Paul Gilbert

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!


See also: Three Mindfulness Practices that Really WorkMindfulness and CompassionMindfulness and Emotions