by Andrea M. Darcy
Too often we try to grow our self-esteem by only focussing on the positive, acknowledging our talents and strengths but carefully avoiding any perceived flaws. While this can give us peaks of confidence, it can also backfire and lead to comparing ourselves to others and criticising ourselves.
So is there a better way to raise your self-worth? This is where self-compassion steps in.
What is self-compassion?
A term originally coined by educational psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion means extending kindness and understanding towards all of yourself, all of the time. Not just when you are doing well, when you are being ‘nice’, when you feel successful… but always.
Dr. Neff divides self-compassion into three parts:
When things go wrong or we feel a failure, the tendency is to criticise ourselves or bully ourselves into feeling better. Self-kindness is about instead accepting that you are not perfect, and working to be warm and understanding with yourself if you do feel bad.
2. Common humanity.
If we can see ourselves as like others, and remember that everyone suffers and nobody is perfect, it can be easier to be kind to ourselves. This isn’t about belittling your problems by implying they are ‘no big deal’, but more about not existing in a constant state of shame because you feel different or abnormal.
Mindfulness is quite a movement lately in therapy circles, including the rise of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). It involves being present to the way things really are right now in a non-attached, open way, including noticing and accepting your feelings and thoughts as they are, instead of judging them or exaggerating them. When we accept what is, we naturally accept ourselves more, too. (For more information read our article on the power of living in the present moment).
Self-compassion and your moods
Is self-compassion worth your focus? If the studies are anything to go by, definitely. It seems that the higher your levels of self-compassion, the more likely you are to be happy.
In one study, Dr. Neff and her team had 177 students complete a variety of personality tests and did indeed find that happiness and optimism levels were higher in those who presented a good level of compassion towards themselves.
Another study done between Yale University and two German universities confirmed these findings, showing that low levels of self-compassion and high levels of self-criticism meant an individual was at a higher risk of experiencing chronic depression.
And a Canadian study on eating disorders found that lower levels of self-compassion were directly related to higher levels of shame and eating disorders pathology in the over 250 young females surveyed.
In other words, if low moods are something you struggle with, working on your self-compassion might really help.
10 Ways to Grow Your Self-Compassion
So how exactly does one become more compassionate towards themselves, then? Try these tips.
1) Notice your pain instead of brushing it off or ignoring it.
If you feel like a failure, don’t do well at something, get hurt by another, or don’t like something about yourself, don’t bully yourself to ‘just get over it’. Accept that you are experiencing pain or are suffering, and that it is okay and indeed normal to do so.
2) Accept you are human.
Perfectionism is the opposite of self-compassion. The truth is that in life we will all have limitations and make mistakes. Each time this happens, try to remember that it’s actually part of being human.
3) Extend empathy, not sympathy, towards yourself.
Self-compassion is not about feeling sorry for yourself. That is victimising yourself. It’s about trying to understand what you are experiencing and support yourself in positive ways.
4) Learn more about yourself.
This can mean learning how to gently question yourself and your thoughts (learn more by reading our article on how to ask the right questions). It also means learning to identify your real needs vs what you think you ‘should’ want and need.
5) Seek ways to care about and comfort yourself.
Just as you would for a new friend or partner, make it your mission to do nice things for yourself that make you feel good. It doesn’t necessarily mean racking up credit card debt with fancy holidays and gifts for yourself, which tend to be more an escape than a comfort, but means saying no to your friends if you are too tired to go out, buying yourself some flowers to brighten up your desk at work, or writing yourself a letter of encouragement.
6) Be your own best friend.
Keep asking yourself, if I was not me but a good friend, how would I treat him/her? What support or advice would I give him/her?
7) Recognise yourself in others.
Seeing how you are the same as others means you are less likely to fall into self-pity, which stems from thinking you are different from others or suffer more than others. And if you notice something great about someone else, take time to realise that you recognise it because you probably have that trait, too.
8) Practise gratitude – with a twist.
Don’t just put all the good things on your daily gratitude list. If something less then perfect happens, can you see an angle where you can be grateful for that, too? For example, can you be grateful you missed the bus because you had more time to think and plan your day? In this way you can cultivate more acceptance for life and others, and this soon translates into more self-acceptance, too. (Not sure you believe in the hype around gratitude? Read our piece on the evidence around gratitude).
9) Try mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness is proposed as one of the key factors in self-compassion, and taking even a few minutes a day to go within using mindfulness meditation can keep you in the now moment and more available to yourself.
10) Choose support.
It’s hard to be compassionate towards yourself if you are constantly in the company of people who criticise and belittle you. If you find it hard to change your social circle, consider the support of a professional counsellor or therapist who can be the encouraging presence you need and help you with stepping towards more positive relationships.
You might even want to consider ‘compassion-focussed therapy‘ (CFT) which literally fouses on helping you be kinder to yourself and more understanding of others.
Being compassionate to yourself isn’t at all about being lazy or not trying in life anymore. It’s simply about about working to accept yourself instead of going against yourself.
Change can then happen naturally, not because you feel you have to change as you aren’t good enough, but because you care about yourself and are choosing to do things that make you feel healthy and happy. Setbacks become opportunities, and what you once might have seen as a failure becomes a chance to learn something interesting.
Best of all, self-compassion means you are growing your self-worth from the inside out. It’s not dependent on what you achieve or do, it is something that begins to flow naturally from accepting that you are fine just as you are.
Fancy giving a type of therapy a go that used compassion? Use our online therapy booking site to find a compassion-focused therapist near you.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and writer. She loves to take difficult concepts and make them easy for anyone to understand. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy