3 Simple Exercises in Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is something we could all benefit from. It soothes the fight-or-flight response and gets us back into the present moment. It is also the perfect antidote to the inner critic (as well as many other situations). However, practising self-compassion can feel weird for a lot of us. The reality is, those of us who find the idea the most odd are probably the ones who need it most.
Self-compassion has been championed by the psychologist Kristin Neff. Kristen writes beautifully on this topic and has a website devoted to exercises in self-compassion. The ideas compiled here are deeply rooted in her work. If you want to read more about Kristin and find more resources, click here.
Side note - For those of you who still feel like compassion is a weakness and criticism is the way forward, I totally get it. I used to be in that camp too. It’s pretty normal when you grow up in a society that tells you, you need to be perfect at all times, and successful in everything you do. However, the literature and research out there show us time and time again that this view is actively getting in the way of us creating change in our lives. So, if this is you, please read this post and this post. Then come back to this, when you feel ready.
Exercises in self-compassion
Think about how you would talk to a friend
During times of distress, we often criticise ourselves or treat ourselves unkindly. My question to you: Would you talk to your friend or treat them the way that you talk to and treat yourself? When I ask people about this the answer is usually a unanimous “NO”. A resounding, “are you kidding me? I wouldn’t have any friends left if I did that”. It’s funny isn’t it, that we think it’s ok to speak to ourselves and treat ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t dream of doing to others.
To change this, we need to practice challenging ourselves and shifting our perspective.
In a moment of calm, bring to mind a recent experience of distress. Or, do this during a moment of distress.
Listen to the thoughts and feelings arising.
Question whether you are responding to yourself in a way that you would respond to a friend?
If the answer is no, imagine your friend in this situation, imagine what you would say to them, what you would do for them.
Say those words and do those things for yourself.
For me, the most successful technique linked to this has been letter writing. This is a lengthier process at first but is worth it. To do this, imagine the situation as you did above. Imagine it as happening to someone you love unconditionally. Write a letter to that person. Include in the letter all the reasons why it is understandable that they feel like this, why they are still exactly the same wonderful human in your eyes, and how you hope their suffering passes. After you have finished writing it, address it to yourself. Keep this letter and read it any time you feel the fear or distress arising. The letter could be as simple as “I am sorry you are having to experience this, I love you”.
2. Take a self-compassion break
This exercise only takes a few moments. You can practice this a few times throughout the day by bringing a moment of distress to mind. Or you can do this solely when you notice the inner critic or any other feelings of distress arise. As with all the exercises I discuss in my work, the more frequently you do them, the more successful they will be.
The exercise involves saying three sentences to yourself. The first sentence recognises that how you are feeling during times of distress, or times when the inner critic rears its ugly head, is a time of suffering for you. The second, connects you to others in the world, recognising you are not alone in your feelings. The third, involves saying to yourself one thing that helps you to express kindness to yourself in that moment.
It is recommended that you use soothing touch while completing this exercise. For example, you could put your hand over your heart, or you could give yourself a gentle hug, or stroke your own hand. For those of you who are sceptical about the soothing touch, evidence shows that giving yourself a hug or stroking yourself causes the same neurochemical response in the brain as actual soothing from others. Specifically, self touch causes release of the feel good hormone oxytocin and decreases release of the stress hormone cortisol.
Take a moment, close your eyes or look at a patch on the ground in front of you.
If practising while calm, bring a situation to mind that is causing you distress. Choose something upsetting but not overwhelming - If doing this causes overwhelm, instead do the 54321 technique to soothe you. If practising in the moment just notice this instead.
Notice the feelings arising in your body. Stay with them for a moment.
Say to yourself: “This is a moment of suffering” (or something similar such as “this is stress” or “this hurts”).
Say to yourself: “Suffering is a part of life” (or “other people feel like this”, “I am not alone, “everyone struggles at some point”).
Say to yourself: “May I be kind to myself” (“may I give myself the compassion that I need” or “may I learn to accept myself as I am”).
I have written alternative statements in the brackets above. You can also add any sentences you feel work for you. For example, you could add “may I be strong” or “may I be calm” as a finishing touch. This is your practice, so make it your own.
3. Practice a loving-kindness meditation
All of the above examples felt weird to me the first few times I practiced them. However, none felt as weird as this one. So, if you are new to self-compassion bare with me. This may be one of those exercises you have to take a leap of faith with, deciding to put judgement to one side and just trial it, to see the effect. That’s what I did and I am glad that I did.
This exercise takes about 10 minutes. It involves thinking about the suffering of someone you care about, and the compassion you want to send to them. It then requires you to think about some of the distress you have experienced, or continue to experience. You then spend time noticing whether there is any difference between the way you respond to yourself and then others.
Because there is nothing like practising these exercises… I have recorded the mindfulness exercise for you. This means that all you have to do is:
Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.
You can either find a comfortable seated position or lie down.
Put your headphones in
There are so many other ways to show yourself self-compassion. The biggest struggle is deciding you are worth taking the time for. Or deciding that self-compassion is worth giving a shot. Once you get there I hope that you give at least one of the above exercises a go. I hope that you take time for yourself, allowing yourself to recognise that this act may be one of the most powerful things you do for yourself today (or even this year).
Have a go, and let me know what you think.
I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get psychology out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my Blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online over video link.
Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.
Disclaimer: Please note, the information in these posts is not intended to be therapy and does not constitute a therapist/client relationship. If you are in need of support, please contact your doctor or mental health provider.