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Blog 14: Five ways to practice self-compassion

Blog 14: Five ways to practice self-compassion

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5 ways to practice self-compassion  

This post is by Megan Van Wyhe, a Families First program worker for Wellspring in west Michigan. 

When we experience periods of stress, our natural response is to do something about it. Rather than trying to change our situations, which is at times a very difficult or lengthy process, we can start by lessening the impact that the situation has on us by practicing self-compassion.

SELF-COMPASSION is the ability to direct emotions of compassion within (empathy and concern when we are experiencing something difficult), or to accept one’s self, particularly in the face of perceived failure.

Self-compassion can be difficult to practice, as it’s often associated with feelings of pity or laziness. Thoughts such as, “I’m letting myself off the hook,” often cross our mind when we talk about giving ourselves the care and empathy we show to other people in similar situations. This is based on the unhelpful belief that we need criticism to do our best; and if we give ourselves self-compassion, we risk becoming self-indulgent or lazy.

In reality, research suggests that self-criticism significantly undermines our motivation. When we criticize ourselves or engage in negative self-talk, we tap into our bodies Threat Defense System or Flight or Fight Response. Our brain does not distinguish between negative self-talk or an actual life-or-death situation. In both cases, the hormone Cortisol is released, preparing our body for action.

As time goes on and our negative self-talk continues, our body increases its level of cortisol production to maintain the same stress response readiness. Eventually, though, we reach a point where the levels of stress and cortisol production become harmful. To protect itself, the body and mind begin to shut down and become less reactive to stress as a protective measure. We then become less motivated to change our situations; and over time, it can lead to cortisol imbalances and in some cases symptoms of depression.

In contrast, practicing self-compassion taps into the opposite biological response. Humans are different from most other species in the way we need care from our mothers at a young age to survive. To reinforce the infant seeking out care, their body responds positively to being comforted and cared for by releasing oxytocin. Studies show oxytocin increases our overall feelings of happiness, reduces blood pressure, and provides a clarity to our thinking and confidence. When we feel comforted and safe, we are in the optimal mindset and physical ability to do our best. The more comforting and compassionate we are toward ourselves, the better we perform.

Here are some ways to practice improved self-compassion:

1. Reflect on common humanity.

  • When we make a mistake, we often think of it as something that is abnormal. Our thoughts center around, “That shouldn’t have happened and wouldn’t have happened if it were anyone else. I shouldn’t be this way.” This creates Isolation in imperfection. Having thoughts that you are the only one who could have made this mistake creates a psychologically damaging view that there is something naturally wrong at your core.

  • This can be managed by exploring common humanity. Rather than showcasing independence, ask yourself how you are like other people to help create common feelings of growth and understanding. The one thing that all humans have in common is that we are all imperfect. Tapping into that by understanding that you are not the only one who could have (and has) made this mistake shifts that focus from, “I’m the mistake,” to, “I made a mistake.”

2. Employ a growth mindset.

  • View challenges as opportunities to grow, rather than obstacles to overcome. This shifts the mindset toward opportunities, rather than problems. While this is difficult to do in the moment, practicing gratitude for your abilities to overcome obstacles helps shift the negative self-talk into strength-focused pursuit of solutions.

3. Treat yourself the way you treat friends.

  • Have you ever been around someone who has made a mistake? How did you respond? Were you critical or compassionate? Did you tell them they were worth nothing or did you remind them they have value outside of their mistakes?

  • When you experience a mistake, reflect on how a friend would talk to you after you shared it. This can remind us that the current moment is not as big of an issue as we initially perceived it to be. You already know how to be a good friend, and know what to say to comfort someone in need. You just have to remember how to do it for yourself.

4. Share your shame.

  • Shame loses power when we share it, since most of the toxic feelings we experience around shame have to do with our fear of how others would respond if they heard about it. Sharing your shameful moments with someone you trust can strengthen your resilience and assist you in letting go of the feelings surrounding the event.

  • If you’re having a hard time treating yourself how you treat a friend, what better way to find out than sharing your experience with a friend!

5. Practice self-compassion affirmations.

  • When you’re in the moment, it can be really difficult to remember to be kind to yourself. Practicing affirmations or self-compassion mantras throughout the day can increase your ability to meet yourself with kindness when faced with stress.

  • Here are some affirmation examples that can assist in challenging your inner critic and reminding yourself for the need for compassion.
    1: I accept the best and worst aspects of who I am.
    2: Changing is never simple, but it’s easier if I stop being hard on myself.
    3: My mistakes just show that I’m growing and learning.
    4: It’s okay to make mistakes and forgive myself.