By: Chelsea Latorre, M.Ed.
Do you ever catch yourself talking negatively about yourself? Judging your behaviors? Responding harshly to the moods, behaviors, or thoughts you have? Thinking about something in the past and wishing you had done something differently? Or, maybe, focusing on the future and trying to make sure that you don’t make the same mistakes that made you feel as terribly as you feel in these moments?
You’re not alone. It’s difficult to maintain a positive mindset with the many different aspects of life that we have to juggle as students, such as academics, social relationships, familial relationships, romantic relationships, jobs, finding a career, and (most importantly and almost always pushed to the back burner) ourselves. I’ll be the first to say that keeping a positive mindset all of the time is completely unrealistic. Sometimes it’s understandable and warranted to experience low mood or negative thoughts – it’s normal. That is when self-compassion can be the most helpful to prevent your mood from dropping too low (making it feel like you hit “rock bottom”).
What is Self-Compassion?
It’s just like it sounds. Self-compassion is having compassion for yourself. To better understand this, think about how you express compassion toward others. The Latin root of the word compassion, is pati, which means “to suffer.” Compassion typically is shown when you:
- Notice others are suffering or that something is wrong.
- Feel moved by their suffering to the point where you experience empathy, warmth, caring, and desire to help others.
- Offer understanding, empathy, and kindness to others when they fail or make a mistake.
Beyond these three aspects, Dr. Kristen Neff, an educational psychologist and researcher who coined the term self-compassion, states that feeling compassion for another person also involves realizing that suffering, failure and imperfection are part of a shared experience of all humans. So, self-compassion involves feeling and acting these ways toward yourself when you’re having a difficult time, when you fail, or when you notice something you don’t like about yourself.
Why is Self-Compassion Important?
We are all humans and all humans make mistakes. More importantly, no human is perfect. It’s so easy for us to judge and criticize ourselves when we make mistakes or find these imperfections. Having self-compassion is important because mistakes, imperfections and failures are inevitable in our lives. If we react negatively to an already negative situation, then imagine how much worse that situation becomes (we’ve all been there and know what this feeling is like). We become consumed with a tunnel vision focus of our problems. Having self-compassion in these situations will help you respond differently in these moments and allow you to acknowledge your own limitations with an objective and realistic point of view. Having self-compassion can help you break the cycle of negativity that happens to all of us when we have become used to judging and criticizing ourselves.
Common Self-Compassion Exercises
Learning self-compassion is like riding a bike for the first time. It would be difficult to hop onto a bicycle if you didn’t start on a tricycle. So, don’t feel disappointed if it takes a couple of tries with the exercises below for you to get the hang of it. Ironically, you need to practice self-compassion as you are learning how to integrate self-compassion in your day-to-day life. Here are some examples in beginner, intermediate, and advanced steps to help you transform your thought processes and become more compassionate toward yourself.
Beginner Self-Compasssion Exercises
Think about how you would treat a friend.
Begin a self-compassion journal.
Journals are so important for documenting your experiences and they are probably the best way to notice change in your life. It can get so easy to become consumed in your day-to-day that we don’t really acknowledge the moments where our mind turns negative (or even the best moments of our day). Dr. Neff suggests keeping a journal to write down experiences during the day, such as anything that you feel bad about or you judged yourself for, or any kind of painful experience. For each of these experiences, do the following:
- Be mindful of your experiences. This means trying to be non-judgmental of your experience as you are writing it down.
- Write down ways this experience is common to all people. Think about how other people would react in this situation and the various causes and conditions that might have contributed to the experience.
- Write down some kind and understanding words of comfort about this situation. By writing these experiences down, you will help to organize your thoughts and emotions and, overall, improve your ability to be objective about your experiences.
Be compassionate towards others.
A critical, first step toward self-compassion is to recognize that what you reject in yourself is what you typically reject in others. In other words, what you tend to judge in yourself can also be what you judge others for. Being critical of others about this can cause you to continue to be judgmental and harsh toward yourself. If you find it hard to be compassionate toward yourself, try extending compassion to others in your life that you find yourself being more critical toward. By extending this compassion to others, you will become more loving towards yourself.
Intermediate Self-Compassion Exercises
Take a self-compassion break.
Take this break anytime during the day. This can be immediately after a painful experience or when you finally get time to yourself before bed. Visit Dr. Neff’s website to listen to the MP3 to help guide your thoughts during this break.
Boundaries are important in all aspects of your life (school, work, relationships, etc.). Take a moment to think about these aspects of your life and be realistic about where you need to set boundaries on what you can handle in the present moment. This doesn’t mean you have to give up or say no to something you’ve always wanted to do. This just means that you need to set realistic boundaries to meet yourself where you are at right now. Maybe this means saying no in the short-term with the goal of eventually being able to say yes and be able to put your all in it later.
Mindfulness and self-compassion are pretty similar constructs. In fact, when researchers measure self-compassion in others, they assess individual’s levels of mindfulness as a factor of self-compassion. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware of where you are, what you’re doing, and what is going on in the context that you are in. Do this in the moment by attending to your thoughts and feelings without trying to change them. Instead, think about how this voice developed and how it has been helpful in the past. Sometimes, we use criticism to motivate us but when we hear the harsh judgment over and over again, we can become consumed by it and it feels like it becomes part of our identity. Practicing mindfulness in this way is important before moving onto more advanced practices of self-compassion.
Note that you don’t have to engage in this practice alone. Often times, exploring your critic voice can feel safer and be most effective when working with a counselor who can help guide you and provide you coping skills along the way. If you are interested, contact the Carruth Center at 304-293-4431 to schedule an appointment with a counselor to help you through this process.
Change your self-talk to become more positive.
The first step in this process is noticing when you are engaging in negative, critical self-talk (which is why this is a more advanced practice). When you notice these thoughts, try to see if you recognize any patterns. Are you saying it in a specific tone? Do you use similar language over and over again? Is it about a specific aspect of your life or yourself? After recognizing this talk, make an active effort to reduce the harshness and judgment by trying to be more compassionate about how you approach the next step. The next step is to reframe your thoughts. Use some of the exercises above, such as treating yourself like you would a friend in a similar situation. The final, and probably the hardest, step is to accept and really believe what you are saying to yourself.
Give yourself permission.
Use a growth mindset.
Need additional help?
Changing negative, critical thoughts can be very difficult, especially when we have become so accustomed to replay them in our mind repeatedly. So, challenging you to engage in these practices is asking a lot. Know that you are not alone and there are counselors at the Carruth Center that are here to help you in your process – wherever in that process you are. If you notice your inner voice being more critical, harsh and judgmental (and maybe that these practices are harder to implement than you thought), contact the center at 304-293-4431 to get connected with a counselor.
For more information regarding Dr. Neff’s concept of self-compassion and for additional exercises, visit her website.
Chelsea is a 4th year doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at WVU. She is a supervised advanced trainee at the Carruth Center, where she provides individual and group counseling to students. She uses mindfulness and self-compassion interventions in her work with clients and has focused much of her outreach involvement on these topics (check out our upcoming workshops). She also has dedicated her dissertation research on mindfulness and self-compassion and the implications of these variables on students’ self-efficacy.