Self Compassion: some Hows and Whys

Breathe. Close your eyes and take one long, slow, deep breath before opening them again. Notice your hands. Gently draw your palms together so that one is flat against the other, and feel the warmth of skin on skin. Trace your fingertips along your palms, noticing the sensations. Now, if you are near to something soft, reach out and touch it.

How did it feel?

I hope the sensations you experienced are pleasant, because if so, you just gave yourself kindness. Kindness is one of the three elements of self compassion. Isn’t it nice? So why, oh why, must such small actions be so difficult to perform on a daily basis?

Studied extensively by Dr. Kristin Neff among others, the practice of self compassion has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression. By directing your innate capacity for compassion inwards just as you project it outwards, you can release some of the pressure you put on yourself and start feeling better.

The benefits of self compassion are directly related to our natural human tendency to be very critical of ourselves. As a consequence of environmental fitness, we evolved to be very tuned in to negative, scary stimuli. Things like the sound of an animal in the bushes would immediately catch a human’s attention and then trigger the cascade of physiological reactions that lead to running away, fast.

In modern times, this means you’re very in tune to negative feedback in the environment. Any perceived slight will stick to your human mind much more than the compliments you receive.

I recently heard an interview with Paul McCartney where he talked about his self doubt. He joked that with a wall full of industry awards you would think he could relax and just be sure of his talents, but that is not his experience. He still harbors that voice inside that questions his every move.

Self compassion includes the understanding of shared humanity, and this comment by Paul McCartney illustrates that you are not alone in your critical malaise. You get to share this experience with just about everyone around you. Despite what we all project externally, the truth is that most people have doubts and questions. You are not alone.

Along with kindness and shared humanity, mindfulness is a core component of self compassion. Mindfulness simply describes the practice of being aware and accepting in the present moment. It means intentionally grounding yourself in the space you’re in, noticing when your mind starts taking you away from that moment. This is instead of the natural thought process that brings you elsewhere, either to the past or the future.

“My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened,” according to philosopher Montaigne. Can you relate? So this third part of self compassion releases you from this misfortune and delivers you to the moment, where you are safe.

By building this practice into your life, you will be calmer and better able to make strong and reasonable plans for your future. You will become more responsive and less reactive, which means you can feel more confident about the decisions you make.


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