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Have you ever lost your temper at…yourself? Blamed and then beat yourself up a little inside for doing something you regret? Maybe you’ve been harsh with someone, only to be much harsher with yourself later?
It’s easy to be tough on yourself—we tend to do it much, much more than we realize. But what if there was a better way? When we forgive ourselves, accept our perceived flaws, and show ourselves kindness, we practice self-compassion. It’s often a lot harder than it sounds, but with the right techniques, we can learn to make it a habit that sticks.
If you ever judge or criticize yourself for no justifiable reason, some of these techniques could be valuable. Some might not be your cup of tea, but others might resonate and come in handy when you least expect it. Read on to find out how to practice self-compassion with tips and exercises, then tell us—what works for you?
This article contains:
- How to Have and Show Self-Compassion
- How Can We Best Practice Self-Compassion?
- 8 Tips and Techniques for Practicing Self-Compassion
- Kirstin Neff’s Step-By-Step Guide to Self-Compassion
- 13+ Useful Resources
- 4 Books
- What are Self-Compassion Affirmations and are they Valid?
- 11 Self-Compassion Affirmations to Practice
- How Mindfulness Scripts Help in Practicing Self-Compassion
- Are there Proven Benefits to Writing A Self-Compassion Letter?
- 3 Example Self-Compassion Letters
- 13 Journal Prompts
- A Take-Home Message
How to Have and Show Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is a positive attitude we can have towards ourselves, and it’s also an empirically measurable construct. Operationally defined and introduced to the positive psychology literature by Associate Professor Dr. Kristin Neff, it is comprised of three separate constructs: Self-kindness, Common Humanity, and Mindfulness (Neff, 2003a; 2003b).
Having self-compassion means being able to relate to yourself in a way that’s forgiving, accepting, and loving when situations might be less than optimal. We know that it’s similar to (yet less permanent than) self-love and that it’s distinct from self-esteem, but how do we show self-compassion?
Self-kindness is about showing kindness and understanding toward ourselves when we fail at something, or when we are hurt (Neff, 2003a). Rather than being critical or judging ourselves harshly when we already feel pain, we can recognize the negative influence of self-judgment and treat ourselves with warmth and patience instead (Gilbert & Irons, 2005).
In short, showing self-kindness means treating our worth as unconditional even when we fall short of our own expectations, whether it’s through our behaviors or even just our thoughts (Barnard & Curry, 2011).
Some examples, adapted from the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS), include (Neff, 2003b: 231):
- Giving yourself the tenderness and care you need when you’re going through a tough time;
- Trying to understand and show patience regarding your own perceived personality flaws; and
- Being tolerant of your own shortcomings.
‘Being part of something bigger’ is a pervasive concept in positive psychology literature, and it’s long been argued that the need for connections is part of human nature (Maslow, 1943). Having Common Humanity means viewing our own individual experiences as embedded in the broader human experience, rather than seeing ourselves as isolated or separate from others (Neff, 2003a).
Part of this is accepting and forgiving ourselves for our flaws—we aren’t perfect, but we show self-compassion when we go easy on ourselves for having limitations (Brown, 2010). Another part of common humanity is realizing that we’re not alone in being imperfect or feeling hurt; rather than withdrawing or isolating ourselves, we appreciate that others feel the same at times (Gilbert & Irons, 2005).
According to the SCS, more specific behaviors would include (Neff, 2003b: 231):
- Perceiving your shortcomings as natural aspects of the human condition;
- Viewing your difficulties as “a part of life that everyone goes through”; and
- Reminding yourself that others also feel inadequate at times, when you feel the same.
Mindfulness is seen as the opposite of avoidance or over-identification in self-compassion theory—it entails acknowledging and labeling our own thoughts as opposed to reacting to them (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Neff, 2010).
When we have self-compassion, we are aware of our own hurtful thoughts and emotions without blowing up their significance through rumination. Instead, we adopt a positive balance between this over-identification at one extreme, and completely avoiding painful emotions and experiences at the other (Neff, 2003a).
Example SCS items for mindfulness translate into the following behaviors (Neff, 2003b: 232):
- Aiming to keep our feelings in balance when we experience something upsetting;
- Maintaining perspective when we fail at things that are important to us; and
- Adopting our emotions with curiosity and openness when we feel sad.
So while the SCS does measure self-compassion as a trait, it can also be seen as a ‘balance’ or a ‘middle way’ of emotional responding (Neff, 2015).
How Can We Best Practice Self-Compassion?
So, it’s about maintaining (or striving for) a happy medium between three theoretical spectra (Barnard & Curry, 2011):
- From Self-kindness to Self-judgment;
- From Common Humanity to Isolation; and
- Between avoidance and over-identification—with Mindfulness as the happy medium.
We also see some key themes popping up that you might already be very familiar with: empathy, kindness, forgiveness, caring, tenderness, and various synonyms for acceptance and non-judgment. But because so much of our mental activity is ingrained or instinctual, it can take some conscious effort at first to start practicing self-compassion.
How to Start
Dr. Kristin Neff herself notes that because of our habitual responses to hurt and negative emotions, getting started can often be a drastic change of perspective (Neff, 2019). And because we’re actually trying to adopt new approaches rather than create positive emotions, it takes practice:
Self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings… With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.
With that in mind, we’ll cover some techniques and tips for practicing this goodwill, before sharing some resources, affirmations, and approaches to help you along the way.
8 Tips and Techniques for Practicing Self-Compassion
There are lots of specific exercises available online that will help you practice self-compassion in a way that suits you. We’ll cover some of these in more depth on in our Resources section, but most have the same general approach.
Treat Yourself as You’d Treat a Friend
One good place to start is by thinking about how you would treat others that you care about. So while we can’t always take away others’ pain, we can validate its existence and provide support to help them get through it and grow. In this respect:
- Let yourself make mistakes. Self-kindness and common humanity tap into two separate but related ideas: “We’re human. But a) so is everybody else, and b) that’s okay.” Rather than interpreting our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as who we are, we can let ourselves off the hook when we might do the same for others. If a friend gets lazy and doesn’t answer your phone call, you probably won’t instantly assume they’re a bad person. Giving yourself permission to be human once in a while is one way to accept your flaws, and remind yourself that you’re not alone in being imperfect (Abrams, 2017).
- Care for yourself as you’d treat others. Closely related to the previous tip, this is about being understanding and empathetic towards yourself. If a friend is feeling down, hurt, or upset, you might physically pat them on the back or hold their hand. Neff describes these as ways of tapping into our own ‘caregiving system’ to release oxytocin which has beneficial cardiovascular effects (Hamilton, 2010). Along with tender, forgiving language (even using terms of endearment to yourself like “darling” or “sweetheart”), these gestures can lead us to feeling self-kindness even if we’re initially reluctant. Try not to go overboard with the endearing terms if it feels too odd, of course!
Becoming More Self-Aware
Other techniques relate to being more self-aware and tapping into our self-talk. Compared to ‘beating ourselves up for beating ourselves up’, becoming aware of our internal narratives is a positive starting point for changing our self-talk.
- Use ‘Releasing Statements’. Maybe you’ve never been a big fan of positive affirmations. Maybe they don’t feel natural or you believe they don’t quite ‘reach’ your Inner Critic at a subconscious level (Wood et al., 2009). If that’s the case, you might try what is colloquially referred to as ‘releasing statements’. These are closely related (if not equivalent) to mini-exercises in self-forgiveness and tap into the mindfulness concept of detached non-judgment. When you catch yourself thinking a negative thought like “I’m such a horrible person for getting upset”, try turning it around and ‘releasing’ yourself from the feeling. Instead, try “It’s okay that I felt upset”.
- Try self-acceptance. This means embracing your own perceived shortcomings as well as your character strengths (Morgado et al., 2014). Self-compassion is about not over-inflating these shortcomings into a definition of who we are—rather, thoughts and feelings are behaviors and states (Neff, 2010).
- Practice mindfulness. Harvard Healthbeat (2019) suggests that mindfulness practices are a good way to center ourselves in the moment. Not only is mindfulness one of self-compassion’s core constructs, but a lot of exercises such as yoga and deep breathing can be used anytime, anywhere. Kirstin Neff also recommends guided nurturing meditations, including body scans and a short ‘Self-Compassion Break’.
- Try not to judge yourself too quickly. Another tip from DiPirro is to stop assuming you’ll behave a certain way. It’s easy to assume things like “I get really grumpy and antisocial on flights”, which sometimes precludes the possibility that you’ll act a different way. This is once again about treating yourself as you would others, and just a future-focused way to give yourself the benefit of the doubt.
From here, we can also zoom out to remind ourselves once more that we’re connected to others. That we’re part of a much bigger picture—common humanity—and adjust our focus accordingly. Here are some example tips:
- Let go of the need for outside validation. Author Dani DiPirro of Stay Positive, The Positively Present Guide to Life suggests that lots of our negative thinking come from how others perceive us. If we’re beating ourselves up for eating something, for instance, a lot of that self-directed anger stems from social pressures, like the pressure to look a certain way or maintain a certain weight. Choosing not to tie our happiness to outside influences can thus be an act of self-kindness with a much larger knock-on effect (Neff, 2011). If this idea is interesting to you, there’s more in this self-reliance article.
- Reaching out to others. This might sound like the opposite of the above, but in fact, this technique is more about placing your feelings in context. When we talk with others, we realize that we’re not alone in feeling pain at different times. It’s an important part of reaffirming our sense of connectedness, reframing our perceived problems within the ‘bigger picture’, and building social support networks that are invaluable to well-being.
So what does Dr. Kirstin Neff herself say about self-compassion?
Kirstin Neff’s Step-By-Step Guide to Self-Compassion
Self-Compassion Step-By-Step is Kirstin Neff’s audio course on developing the skills and techniques for the everyday practice of the same.
Over six sessions, it covers approaches that you can use in the moment, immersive practices, and guided self-compassion meditations that draw on the theory and its applications. Topics covered include (Neff, 2019):
- How to be easier on yourself;
- Why we often resist showing self-compassion;
- The distinctions between self-compassion and self-esteem;
- Dealing with difficult feelings more adaptively; and
- Self-motivating positively rather than criticizing yourself.
13+ Useful Resources
You’ll find a lot of useful resources on self-compassion if you’re looking for exercises, scripts, or more theory as a therapist. Apart from our extensive blog posts on topics like mindfulness, compassion, and the self, you’ll also find ample self-compassion worksheets and workbooks.
If you know of other key sites that we haven’t yet included, please let us know in the comments. Because these also contain their own wealth of helpful links, you’ll find plenty to browse here.
1. Self-Compassion.org is Kirstin Neff’s official webpage on the topic. Here you can look into more research, browse through her recommended self-compassion books, and watch videos to learn more. Also on this site—and particularly useful for therapists—you’ll find meditation scripts and self-compassion exercises for yourself or clients.
The eight featured exercises include:
- The compact, take-away Self-Compassion Break for individuals to practice anytime;
- How would you treat a friend? – which is a writing exercise in empathy, mindfulness, and compassion;
- Letter and journal writing guides;
- A dynamic experiential learning activity focused on self-awareness and the inner critic (The criticizer, the criticized, and the compassionate observer); and
- Exercises on values (Identifying what we really want) and activities geared at changing up negative self-talk.
2. Chrisgermer.com is another lovely source of more resources on mindful self-compassion. Germer is the co-developer of MSC training, and as such, his website is a good place for helping professionals interested in developing their MSC skills. You’ll also find guided meditations on the core self-compassion skills, written PDF instructions in the same, practices to teach or work through with clients, and online workshops.
These include the Center’s:
- Certificate Program in Mindfulness and Psychotherapy;
- Power of Therapeutic Presence: Mindfulness and Compassion for Clients and Clinicians; and
- Live virtual classes on MSC for practitioners.
3. Linked closely to Chrisgermer.com, the CenterforMSC.org website is also a rich source of meditations, practices, and general background for therapists and coaches. Professionals can search for online practice groups such as the MSC Community for Deepening Practice and related off-site communities.
Here, you’ll also find a course directory for in-person workshops (some are also featured on chrisgermer.com), meditations, and plenty of background on MSC. Educators can get more information on immersive MSC teacher training courses, and there is a wealth of background reading recommendations for those who simply want to learn more.
4. Other websites on Self-Compassion can be found (in abundance) at the resources page of self-compassion.org.
5+ Workbooks and Worksheets
We’ve already linked to some of our self-compassion workbooks and worksheets above, so here are just a few that we have not yet covered.
- The Government of Western Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions has produced an in-depth, comprehensive PDF self-compassion workbook that comes as seven different modules. Understanding, barriers to, and preparing for self-compassion are introductory modules in a sense, while Compassionate Imagery and Self-Compassionate Thinking are slightly more hands-on with guides and exercises. Modules 6 and 7 on Self-Compassionate Behavior and Self-Compassionate Living are full of practical tips for individuals. On the link above, you can download the whole book as a zip file for free.
- This site has also compiled some free exercises on mindful self-compassion. As well as some worksheets, you’ll also find audio and video therapist resources.
- Act with Compassion offers activities here that focus on becoming more aware of and working on self-criticism. Some client handouts on this page may be helpful for practitioners, and cover topics such as self-esteem vs. self-compassion, self-criticism, and Lovingkindness meditation.
- This lesson plan and video from TEDEd is created by The School of Life and volunteer teacher Alexandra Panzer. Educators and parents can also read up on the open and guided discussions; while they stopped being active a while ago, they contain useful talking points for the classroom.
- This self-compassion resource is a PDF worksheet that adapts Kirstin Neff’s “How Would You Treat a Friend?” exercise. It is tweaked to be a group activity with interactive discussion questions and works as a downloadable handout for facilitators, too.
If—somehow—you’ve already finished the self-compassion books in this article on self-love, here are a few more worthy reads which we haven’t yet recommended:
- Self-Compassion for Teens: 129 Activities & Practices to Cultivate Kindness by Lee-Anne Gray (Amazon)
- Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself: 40 Ways to Transform Your Inner Critic and Your Life by Lori Deschene (Amazon)
- The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown (Amazon)
- Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion by Elisha Goldstein (Amazon)
What are Self-Compassion Affirmations and are they Valid?
We’ve looked at positive daily affirmations elsewhere on this site, and we’ve examined that their roots lie in self-affirmation theory and global self-efficacy (Steele, 1988; Cohen & Sherman, 2014).
In a nutshell, we can use positive affirmations to keep up a global narrative for ourselves, about ourselves, that is relevant to our self-identity. With this in mind, let’s look at two different ‘types’ of ways that we can use affirmations to become more self-compassionate.
Using Affirmations to Motivate
In this respect, some self-compassion affirmations may be slightly different from the positive daily affirmations we’re used to. Most people already know about affirmations of values (things we hold meaningful and personally important), and using affirmations to broaden our sense of self-concept (Critcher and Dunning, 2015).
In contrast, you’ll find that some example self-compassion affirmations are more focused on the three components: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness than they are on our ability to adapt to different situations. They may be more goal-focused and designed to motivate, sparking our intention to change.
- “I’m going be kind to myself” rather than “I’m a patient and understanding mom to my kids”; or
- “I’m going to treat myself the way I would treat my very best friend” instead of “My body is amazing just the way it is and I accept myself this way.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about the validity of this kind of self-compassion affirmation—i.e. self-talk in a goal-setting context—you might find this paper on Hope Theory very helpful (Snyder et al., 1998). Succinctly, positive self-talk (like “I can do this”) is common in high-hope people. It’s a kind of agentic thinking which helps motivate us towards our goals when we come across obstacles. Goals like becoming more self-compassionate, for instance.
Using Affirmations to Challenge Your Inner Critic
Practicing affirmations can also be useful if you’re hoping to replace the negative self-talk we referred to earlier with more self-kindness. Our (often habitual) tendencies to blame, criticize, or put ourselves down can’t be changed unless we try to catch ourselves in the act, and only then can we reframe them (Soflau & David, 2017).
Replacing negative automatic thoughts with self-compassionate internal dialogue helps us deal with our Inner Critic, replacing it with empathetic self-directed talk (Earley, 2010; 2018).
We can think of these more like the actual ‘content’ of self-compassion. It’s as easy as replacing your negative self-talk with mindful recognition of your feelings and giving yourself a caring, loving response rather than self-criticizing (Kendall et al., 1989; Hope et al., 2010).
In the next section, we’ve included some of the latter type.
11 Self-Compassion Affirmations to Practice
Try these if you’re a believer in the power of affirmations, and use them to replace self-criticism or remind yourself to be kind to Number One.
- I accept the best and worst aspects of who I am.
- Changing is never simple but it’s easier if I stop being hard on myself.
- My mistakes just show that I’m growing and learning.
- It’s okay to make mistakes and forgive myself.
- I am free to let go of others’ judgments.
- It’s safe for me to show kindness to myself.
- I deserve compassion, tenderness, and empathy from myself.
- I release myself with forgiveness from today and move forward with self-love to tomorrow.
- Every day is a new opportunity. I won’t let self-doubt or judgment hold me back from the future.
- I forgive myself and accept my flaws because nobody is perfect.
- I’m not the first person to have felt this way, and I won’t be the last, but I’m growing.
How Mindfulness Scripts Help in Practicing Self-Compassion
Mindfulness scripts are useful tools for therapists and individuals. They form a key part of the Mindful Self-Compassion program (MSC) developed by Drs. Christopher Germer and Kirstin Neff.
The basic premise of mindfulness scripts is that sometimes a step-by-step walk-through is helpful when we’re exploring our ‘present moment’ experiences. As part of broader self-compassion practice, they can be useful guidance for cultivating a state of mindfulness:
“moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts [and] feelings…through a gentle, nurturing lens.” (Greater Good Science Center, 2019)
Mindfulness scripts help in practicing self-compassion by taking us through painful emotions and feelings in a detached and accepting way. Available as videos, written scripts, body scan soundtracks, and more, they help us (Parker, 2016):
- Become attuned to the painful feelings which often spark self-judgment and unconstructive self-talk;
- Identify, label, and accept our emotions;
- Recognize them as transient and fleeting, and realize that they will pass;
- Investigate them and understand their causes (within reason); and
- Release ourselves from the need to control them.
If you’re ready for more hands-on techniques in mindfulness that you can use with your therapy clients, see how our Mindfulness X program can equip you as a helping practitioner.
Are there Proven Benefits to Writing A Self-Compassion Letter?
Given that letter-writing is one very specific exercise for practicing self-compassion, there is (unsurprisingly) a dearth of studies on this precise topic. But what we do know about expressive hand-written letters, emotions, and the nature of self-compassion suggests that they may have some benefits.
The Impacts of Expressive Writing
Self-compassion letters are one written form of emotional expression, or at least this applies to our initial recall of a particular emotion (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). They require us to disinhibit and (of course) write about emotional experiences, like the painful feelings that sometimes trigger self-criticism. And here’s what we know:
- Other forms of writing therapy, such as journal writing, have been related to feelings of greater psychological well-being (PWB), a reduced number of stress-related doctor visits, and enhanced positive affect (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
- Expressive writing promotes self-distancing, a helpful process of emotional regulation that helps us construct meaning from our experiences (Park et al., 2016). As an example, “Why did you lose your temper?” (self-distanced) vs. “Why did I lose my temper?” (self-immersed) (Eva, 2017); and
- It is considered helpful as a coping strategy for stressful life events (Travagin et al., 2015).
Both self-compassion and expressive writing have roots in alleviating worry and the negative tendency of rumination, too, which makes letter-writing a particularly logical exercise in the former (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Raes, 2010).
So if you feel that these sound like benefits which might help you, it may be worth trying to put your thoughts down as words. True, it may not feel natural at first, but some things take practice.
3 Example Self-Compassion Letters
Here are some example letters that you can use both to get started and as you continue your self-compassion practice.
- This Greater Good In Action walk-through takes only 15 minutes—and to be fair, it’s more of a ‘how to’ than an example. It contains five simple but effective guidelines and some helpful pointers and begins by inviting you to put yourself in another’s shoes. It provides a constructive way to change your perspective on a perceived flaw that you see in yourself.
- On Page 8 of this PDF from the Centre for Clinical Interventions, you’ll find an example self-compassion letter that’s already set out for you, step by step.
- One writer even shares this personal self-compassion letter, which she has written to herself as an imaginary friend.
13 Journal Prompts
Try some of these self-compassion journals if you’re still feeling a bit of writer’s block. Try applying each of the three self-compassion constructs in your journal, and below you’ll see how they can follow a logical sequence.
Start with approaching whatever emotional experience you’ve been through with balanced awareness, curiosity, and detached interest. Acknowledge but don’t magnify how you felt, thought, or what you did while trying not to judge yourself for what was essentially a human reaction. Please do tweak these examples, which are deliberately generic and intended only as a guide:
- “I felt angry/upset/impatient/etc. because of….”
- “I realize now that when…happened, I reacted in the moment, and I felt regret/embarrassed/ashamed/etc. afterward.”
- “Stepping back from it now, I accept that I was thinking hurtful/frustrated/annoyed thoughts when…”
- “As I reflect on my behavior earlier, I acknowledge that my reaction to…was driven by feelings of disappointment/fear/doubt/etc.”
- “Looking back now, I notice my thoughts and feelings from earlier today. At the time, the situation made me feel…”
As you recall the experience you began writing about, move the topic toward common humanity. Doing this means acknowledging first and foremost that you’re not the only one experiencing negative emotions.
Adapted from and inspired by Kristin Neff’s official Self-Compassion journal exercise, try to take these as both general ‘mindsets’ as well as sentence starters.
- “Everybody feels anger/pain/jealousy at some point or another…”
- “The situation was a complicated one, and most people find themselves feeling frustrated in tricky situations like that…”
- “Nobody is perfect or immune from thinking the occasional fearful/irrational/defensive thought…”
Go easy on yourself for this part, and write to yourself as you would to someone you care deeply about. Having reminded yourself that you’re not superhuman or immune from painful feelings, this is the perfect space to be comforting and gentle. As the last few sentence starters show, you can write using second-person pronouns if it helps.
- “I forgive myself for feeling as upset/hurt/exasperated/etc. as I did earlier”
- “That wasn’t my last chance to practice more patience/understanding/empathy/etc…”
- “I made a mistake/snapped/slipped a little today and that’s fine. Next time a situation like that comes around I’ll…”
- “It’s not something worth dwelling on, tomorrow you can react with more concern/tenderness/goodwill/etc…”
- “You understand why you responded that way and it’s OK. Next week you could make up for it by stopping to listen/showing that you care/etc…”
A Take Home Message
Self-compassion is refreshing in its premise. It initially takes conscious effort even to become aware of our mental processes, but most worthwhile things do require practice. We’ve looked at some varied techniques for having and showing self-compassion on a regular basis—so if letter-writing isn’t your thing, hopefully affirmations or journaling will help.
There’s no reason why you can’t get creative with your own techniques and tricks, either—we’re sure you can think of something. Would little self-compassion exercises flashcards work for you? How about a blog or a creative reminder to be kind to yourself? What has worked for you in the past that you might want to tweak? Let us know in the comments!
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