Self-Compassion: The Science of Kindness

As we say goodbye to 2020 and look ahead to 2021, we can all acknowledge it was a particularly trying year for our nation and the world. According to the American Psychological Association, the compounding stressors of 2020 yielded a national mental health crisis across generations. When situational and societal stressors build, we are left to try and find ways to manage. Some people may reach out to family, some may call upon friends, others may rely on mental health professionals – or perhaps a combination of these strategies. But what if we were able to add ourselves to our resource list?

Now if the thought of coming back to yourself – especially during difficult times – feels overwhelming, keep reading. This article focuses on self-compassion and will help you learn how to be a kinder version of yourself. If and when you learn to be a kinder version of yourself, you can implement these skills in times of joy, sadness, excitement, loss, pain, uncertainty, and more. You take you everywhere you go – so being nicer to yourself is a worthwhile investment. At its simplest form, self-compassion is kindness with accountability. It means being gentle with ourselves while also holding space for expectations and improvement. It means implementing healthy self-talk instead of criticism, and it looks like treating ourselves like we would treat our friends or loved ones.

For example, let’s say you set a goal for yourself in 2020 and you didn’t quite accomplish it. A self-critical person might say to themselves: What’s wrong with you? Other people could have done [insert goal here] and more. You’ll never measure up. Why do you even set goals knowing you won’t achieve them?… and the list goes on. A person who lacks accountability might say: No worries at all! Goals are just good ideas, not tasks that need to be accomplished. Eh… who cares? A person who is self-compassionate would say: Whew! It was a tough year and I didn’t accomplish all I set out to – that’s okay. How can I take better care of myself in this process? What if I rest, regroup, and try again? What would I like to do differently when I try again? What supports would be useful to me in this process? You see, self-compassion is being kind and it’s also being accountable. Self-compassion is not judgmental and condescending but it’s also not letting yourself off the hook. Self-compassion is a middle ground approach that allows you to be gentle with yourself and motivate yourself for handling all that life will throw your way.

Since life will continue to have its ups and downs, it is a worthwhile practice to pour into ourselves. That way, as we face highs and lows, we can come back to ourselves in a way that is kind, gentle and safe. We can feel assured knowing we can check-in with ourselves without being further beaten down or trampled. If inside the self is a dark and difficult place to be, imagine the peace that could follow from learning to be a good friend to ourselves despite the trials of life. The good news here is that self-compassion is not just a ‘cool idea’ or some ‘lofty out of reach concept’ – it is a science. Self-compassion is a practice which can be strengthened over time.

If you need further convincing that honing-in on self-compassion might be worth your time, consider this: self-compassionate practices have been linked to perceived reduction in overall stress, healthier relationships with others, increased physical and psychological well-being, increased resiliency during times of distress, decreased anxiety and depression symptoms, and increased likelihood of acting morally in difficult situations. The benefits of being better TO you, is living a life that is better FOR you.

Five Steps For Practicing Self-Compassion

  1. Be mindful – tune in to your thoughts and feelings. Pay attention to your self-talk so you can begin to rework it. If you allow your thoughts and feelings to play on autopilot it will be nearly impossible to reroute them. Many of us are self-critical in an automatic way. However, when we begin to notice our self-talk we can gently and consistently begin to ‘catch’ those thoughts and ‘correct’ with healthier alternatives.
  2. Talk to yourself like a friend – consider your situation as if a friend was coming to you with the same scenario. Ask yourself what you would say to them, and offer that same sentiment to yourself.
  3. Remember everyone struggles – if and when you face difficulties, try to keep the perspective that pain, sadness, and struggling are universal to the human experience. Everyone will fall short, everyone will struggle, and everyone will experience hardship in some way or another. Instead of personalizing difficulties and telling yourself you are alone in your struggles, remember that difficulties are an innate part of life. Though your struggles may be unique to you – you are not alone.
  4. Give yourself permission to be imperfect – just like we all struggle, we all make mistakes. Practice giving yourself space to be human.
  5. See a therapist – last but certainly not least, working on yourself is not an individual task! Think of a therapist as a physical trainer for your brain. A therapist can help you retrain your thoughts, strengthen new neural pathways, and help you practice the steps of self-compassion. Developing new skills requires practice and consistency, and a therapist can help coach you along the way.

In closing, self-compassion is offering ourselves kindness with accountability. The practice of self-compassion has both physical and mental health benefits, and can be strengthened over time through mindfulness, approaching ourselves like we would a friend, keeping the perspective of universal struggle, remembering humans are meant to be imperfect, and working with a mental health professional to learn healthier ways of thinking and being. Self-compassion is an investment in taking care of ourselves so that at the end of every day, regardless of the ebb and flow of life, we can return to ourselves in a way that is safe, productive, and kind.

Brianne N. Makley, LPC
Pre-Doctoral Psychology Trainee
The Behavioral Wellness Group