Practicing Self-Compassion: How to Empathize With Yourself

Self-compassion is often defined as treating yourself as you would a good friend. While its importance for mental health is growing, many of us still don’t know how to practice it daily. Here, we break down 5 practical tips you can start putting into practice today.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is the practice of being kind and understanding to yourself. Researchers state that there are 3 elements to self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness. Developing a kinder inner voice to counteract common self-criticism.
  • Common humanity. Recognizing that suffering is a natural part of life, and you are not alone in your struggles.
  • Mindfulness. Becoming less judgmental, reducing over-identification with your pain, and opening yourself up to more genuine emotions and experiences.

Why it is important to practice self-compassion

The more self-compassion you develop, the more likely you are to experience fewer mental health struggles. For example, many research studies show that symptoms of anxiety and depression decrease as self-compassion increases.

A review study pointed out that more self-compassionate people have better relationships with more authentic feelings of warmth and validation. It’s also linked to higher amounts of clarity and a better ability to regulate intense emotions and self-soothe.

In general, you’re less likely to get stuck in a cycle of ruminating, worrying, and beating yourself up.

How it improves your mental health

One of the reasons why compassion is so important for mental health is that it can greatly reduce self-criticism.

When our inner critics are strong, we develop a more rigid and negative outlook on our lives and ourselves. For example, rather than accepting that some hardships are a part of life experiences, or forgiving ourselves for making a mistake, we beat ourselves up. That can easily lead to a spiral of self-blame, guilt, and shame.

Naturally, moving past a hardship is much harder when we’re stuck in anger and regret. Instead, we can develop mental health symptoms, such as increased stress, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

With self-compassion, we can build resilience and a healthier level of empathy. We become more accepting of the hardships we’ve been dealt and forgive ourselves for our mistakes. With this outlook, we can manage challenges better and move on from them more quickly.

Tips on how to practice self-compassion daily

Understanding its importance and putting it into daily practice are two different things. As with any habit, starting small offers the best chance for long-term results.

1. Download an app to practice daily observation

Rather than vaguely saying you’ll try to be more observant of your inner critic, download an app that reminds you to check in. You can schedule a few reminders a day to take a moment to pause, step back, and become a non-judgmental observer of your thoughts.

2. Track one kind thing for yourself daily

To make any habit work long-term, we have to be consistent — that won’t happen without effort and reminders. Research shows that monitoring your goals makes you more likely to complete them, and stick to them long-term.

3. Place a picture of yourself as a child on your phone

Seeing yourself as an innocent child can make you pause before jumping into negative self-talk. Whenever you look at your phone, you’ll be reminded about innocence, and how important it is to speak to yourself with love and care.

Go through your childhood photos as your home screen, starting from when you were a baby. As you feel yourself improving or ready for a change, move on to the next year, until you reach your current self.

If seeing yourself as a child makes you too emotional or isn’t possible, try your favorite animal as a baby instead.

4. Don’t force yourself to think positively — go neutral instead

Rather than working hard to think the opposite of every negative thought you have, aim for a neutral middle ground. There’s less resistance that way, making it easier to maintain.

If you catch yourself in negative self-talk, pause, acknowledge it, and ask yourself if your thoughts are true.

For example, if you’re thinking that failing your exam tomorrow means you’re a failure and you’ll never get a job, ask yourself if that’s true. Is it possible that you’re just human and you can’t do everything perfectly all the time? Maybe instead, you’re going through a tough time and what you really need is a break, not more pressure.

5. Take a course

A structured course makes us more likely to follow through with our efforts.

For example, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs are eight weeks long and involve a few minutes of your day, and one class a week. Research on these programs shows marked improvements in participants, such as reduced symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Finally, remember that you don’t have to force yourself to 'feel better.' Instead, take a moment to remind yourself that life isn’t easy, and you’re working on learning how to manage it. As with most habits, doing a complete 180 in the way you think isn’t going to happen overnight. After all, the more we think a certain way, the more ingrained it becomes. Luckily, the reverse can also be true. With some effort, we can build new neural pathways. We’re never too old to change how we think. A negative inner voice is learned, and you can unlearn it, too.

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