Most, if not all of us, have a self-critical voice. Self-analysis can often be harnessed in a positive way, enabling us to learn and improve. But it has a dark side. Self-analysis can turn into toxic self-criticism, impacting our wellbeing and contentment.
For years I had unhelpful self-talk, so I know first-hand how debilitating it can be. But a long time ago, I discovered something – an evidence-based strategy that has helped me to put my self-critical voice in check. Ready for the secret? It’s self-compassion.
What is self-compassion and how can we learn it?
Self-compassion is showing acceptance, kindness, understanding and love to ourselves when confronted with personal failings, instead of mercilessly judging and criticising who we are, and our behaviour. This can seem hard, almost impossible at first, but with practice, a personal transformation can take place that changes the way you live.
The key to self-compassion is to honour and accept that you are human, and life doesn’t always go as planned. There will be failings, limitations, frustrations, losses and mistakes, but it is all part of the experience of life, and the human condition. The fact is, we are all flawed and imperfect, and when you truly understand this, you can begin to change the relationship you have with yourself (and others), forgive your perceived weaknesses, and go from not caring about your feelings, to deeply loving and honouring who you are. After-all, you are only human.
What self-compassion is not…
You may confuse self-compassion with self-pity, self-indulgence, self-centredness, narcissism or self-serving behaviour. You may even believe that punishing, tormenting or criticising yourself makes you perform better, live up to your standards, or reach your potential. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact this is one of the greatest misconceptions about self-compassion.
Once more, self-compassion can often be confused with self-esteem. Whilst self-esteem is the positive evaluation of yourself, self-compassion is judgement-free. It is simply the act of “being with” yourself, showing yourself kindness and comfort, reassuring yourself that we’re not alone, and ‘feeling’ your pain with acceptance and love.
So, how do you know when you’re practicing self-compassion. Here are a few things you may be doing:
- Trying to understand and show patience towards your inadequacies
- Asking yourself ‘What do you need right now to feel better’ and then acting on that
- Talking to yourself like you would a dear friend.
The 3 elements of self-compassion
According to research by Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three distinct elements. They are:
- Self-kindness – The act of being sympathetic, compassionate and kind toward yourself when you feel inadequate, rather than harsh, critical or judgemental.
- Common humanity – It is part of the human experience to suffer and have feelings of inadequacy. When you realise that everyone battles with similar feelings, you can see your challenges as a shared human experience. Without this perspective, you may see yourself as separate from others (e.g. ‘why is this only happening to me.’)
- Mindfulness – When you see your suffering in perspective you can begin to acknowledge and label it, instead of avoiding or over-identifying with it. This observation enables you to view your self-talk with openness and mindful awareness, the catalyst to self-compassion, love and acceptance.
When you start to notice your self-critical voice take over, think about, and put into practice, each of these elements. By doing so, you can begin to realise the power of self-compassion and integrate it into your daily life, redefining your self-talk.
How to practice self-compassion
The next time you hear your critical voice emerge, I encourage you to give these simple strategies a go. The key is to approach these activities with curiosity and openness – and remind yourself that millions of others have felt the feelings you currently do – it is human nature and part of our shared humanity.
- Love letter to yourself – Write a letter from the perspective of an imaginary friend who is kind, compassionate, accepting and loving toward you. The letter could include how your friend would:
- talk/reframe your flaws, insecurities or mistakes
- covey deep compassion for you
- remind you of your humanity
- suggest lessons to learn or changes you could make.
Once written, put the letter aside for a few days and then come back to it. Read it out aloud and let its wisdom permeate deep into your soul. Keep this letter and read it when you feel self-criticism taking over.
2. Self-compassion journal – Writing things down is powerful and helps you to see yourself in a different light. If something happens and you suddenly feel self-critical, ashamed, embarrassed or judgemental about your actions, write down why. From there, use the 3 elements of self-compassion to deconstruct your thoughts.
For example, perhaps you lashed out and said something nasty to your partner. Under the ‘Mindful’ element, write about your emotions and how you feel with no judgement, but acceptance and understanding instead. Don’t dramatise or belittle the event – just write about it with unbiased perspective. Under the ‘Common humanity’ element, write about your experience with the lens of shared humanity, our imperfections as people, and that everyone has painful experiences – you are not alone. Lastly, under ‘Self-kindness’, comfort yourself with words of understanding, love and reassurance. Give it a go!
This exercise is designed to help organise your thoughts and emotions, provide greater perspective, and build your new muscle of self-love. The more you do this exercise, the more self-compassion will become second nature.
3. The touch of support – Physical touch releases the hormone oxytocin which soothes our emotions, calms our minds, and provides a sense of security. We don’t have to rely on a hug from others to feel better, we can do this ourselves! The next time your self-criticism takes hold, why not try the following:
- Place your hand on your heart – See how it feels when you use one hand or both. Take deep breaths and linger with the feeling of self-connection as long as you like
- Experiment with placing your hand on your cheek, cradling your face, giving yourself a hug, placing your hands on your abdomen (or one on your tummy and one on your heart) or gently stroking your arms and hands.
See what touch comforts you the most, and use the technique when you’re feeling low, depleted, frustrated or upset.
Ready to advance your self-compassion practice?
We have curated a range of resources to help advance your self-compassion journey. Here’s a few resources we’d encourage you to check out:
- Watch this wonderful TED talk by self-compassion researcher and guru, Dr. Kristin Neff
- Watch this short video highlighting the power of self-compassion. Not only does it reinforce suffering as a human experience, but it also reminds us, we’re not alone.
- Read Fierce Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself: 40 Ways to Transform your Inner Critic and Your Life by Lori Deschene, and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who you Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown.
I’d love to hear how you get-on with these self-compassion exercises and how they transform your self-concept and life.