What Is Self-Compassion? Why It Matters and 7 Ways to Practice It

In our demanding society, negative self-talk often prevails, eroding self-worth. Self-compassion, popularized by Dr. Kristin Neff, promotes kindness towards oneself during adversity. Research supports its benefits. Explore its elements and practice with mindfulness, reframing thoughts, and self-care for enhanced well-being.

Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta By Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Updated on May 24, 2024

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Life can be tough. Really tough. In today’s society, we’re constantly hustling, striving for success, and putting tons of pressure on ourselves. But have you ever stopped to think about how you treat yourself in the midst of it all? The sad reality is many of us have an inner dialogue where an inner critic prevails, with negative self-talk becoming more prevalent than kind, gentle, and compassionate self-talk. This can degrade our self-worth and self-esteem.

That’s where self-compassion comes in. If you’d like to be kinder to yourself and notice positive changes to your well-being, practicing self-compassion is a great place to start. This transformative practice will help you learn to extend the same kindness and understanding to yourself that you do to others.

Here’s everything you need to know about what self-compassion is, why it matters, and seven ways to practice it in your daily life.

What Is Self-Compassion?

As the name suggests, self-compassion means having compassion toward yourself. “Self-compassion is being kind to yourself and giving yourself grace, the way you would toward someone else that you care about,” says Julia Preamplume, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy. “Instead of shaming yourself and beating yourself up for your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, you provide nurturance and understanding.”

The concept of self-compassion was originally popularized by Dr. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., who has since become a pioneer in the field, spreading the word and educating the masses on self-compassion.

When you practice self-compassion, you treat yourself with kindness, care, and understanding, especially during difficult times. It involves acknowledging your pain, struggles, and suffering without self-criticism. You’re metaphorically (or literally) giving yourself a hug when you need it the most.

So many of us tend to engage in tons of negative self-talk. Frequently, we are unkind to ourselves, and we are our own worst critics. Self-compassion aims to undo this learned behavior. With self-compassion, you will learn to respond to any suffering or difficulties you face with patience, understanding, and care. Over time, you will learn to shed perfectionism as you make room for self-acceptance and self-confidence.

Is Self-Compassion Research-Backed?

Yes. There have been many studies backing the efficacy of self-compassion. Research has suggested that the practice can help anyone from rape survivors dealing with shame to older adults coping with chronic illness.

How Can I Learn More About Self-Compassion?

If you’d like to dive even deeper into the world of self-compassion, a great place to look is the books Dr. Kristin Neff has written since she is a leading researcher in the field. Another option is the book “The Mindful Path To Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts And Emotions,” by Christopher Germer, Ph.D. Dr. Neff and Dr. Germer co-wrote a workbook to accompany this book, which is called “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive.

Who Can Self-Compassion Help?

Anyone can benefit from self-compassion, Preamplume says. Virtually everyone can afford to be more kind and understanding towards themselves.

What Are the Three Elements of Self-Compassion?

To further understand self-compassion, let’s look into the three elements or components of self-compassion that Dr. Neff has defined:

1. Self-Kindness Versus Self-Judgment

Just as it sounds, this element urges you to be gentle with yourself instead of being judgmental and critical. “It’s the practice of being warm and kind to yourself versus getting hooked into self-criticism and shame,” Preamplume says.

This element also involves recognizing that nobody’s perfect – including you. Imperfections and mistakes are simply a part of life. This is no reason to be unkind or harsh towards yourself due to anything you’re experiencing.

“Show yourself patience and understanding, even when you stumble. It is essential to embrace yourself, imperfections and all,” says Melissa Galica, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy. “Always extend the same level of grace and forgiveness to yourself as you would offer to others.”

When you cultivate compassion and replace self-judgment with self-kindness, you create a nurturing environment for personal growth, emotional resilience, and self-acceptance, making your brain a much more pleasant place to be.

2. Common Humanity Versus Isolation

When we’re going through a tough time or feeling difficult emotions, we often feel like we’re the only ones dealing with this, making us feel very alone. This isn’t helpful and will just feed shame, isolation, and self-pity.

“Common humanity means we recognize that we have the shared human experience of struggle and imperfection,” Preamplume says. “There are others who are going through and have been through similar challenges.”

It’s so important to recognize that you are never alone in whatever you’re going through – whether that’s coping with a physical health condition, a mental health disorder, or trouble with your relationships.

Recognizing and embracing shared common humanity and the human condition allows us to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others.

3. Mindfulness Versus Over-Identification

This element of self-compassion empowers you to cultivate a better relationship with your thoughts and emotions.

“Mindfulness is the practice of observing and noticing our inner experience without judgment, and oftentimes, practicing mindfulness is a precursor to feeling compassion towards ourselves,” says Preamplume. This is what you want to aim for, versus over-identification, which is linked to self-judgment.

“When we are over-identifying, we get hooked into our difficult thoughts and feelings, and we judge them, which in turn makes us become them versus just experiencing them,” Preamplume says.

7 Ways to Practice Self-Compassion

Now that you understand the concept of self-compassion, it’s time to put it into practice. Here are seven ways you can start to cultivate self-compassion.

1. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is key when diving into self-compassion. When you are mindful, you are in tune with how you’re feeling and what kinds of thoughts are popping into your brain in the present moment.

Preamplume says you can practice simply noticing or observing your thoughts instead of getting caught up in them or trying to fight them. She uses the metaphor of swimming in the ocean to demonstrate mindfulness.

Imagine being in waves in the ocean, experiencing and floating in the waves. If there’s a rip tide and you try to fight against the current, you could drown. But if you stay calm and swim alongside the current without trying to fight it, the wave will pass.

The idea is that you can be mindful of a negative emotion, such as shame – and notice it without judgment or falling into a spiral of rumination. The goal is to have a non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts and feelings.

2. Try the RAIN Meditation

If you’d like a slightly more structured approach to mindfulness, you can try the RAIN meditation. The acronym RAIN was created by psychologist Tara Brach. Preamplume says this is a great approach for people learning to practice self-compassion. It stands for:

Essentially, this process involves you recognizing the situation you’re in and what emotions you’re feeling, allowing things to simply be, investigating the situation with care, and then nurturing yourself with self-compassion.

You can do this on your own or listen to a guided meditation to help you along the way.

3. Imagine What You’d Say to a Loved One

If you’re going through a hard time or you’re noticing your inner critic speaking unkindly, notice this and take a step back. Preamplume suggests imagining what you would say to a loved one who is going through the same thing that you are. For example, think of a family member, good friend, partner, or child. You wouldn’t say anything mean or judgmental to them if they were struggling, right? So, you can think about what you would say to them if they were in your shoes. Treat yourself with the same loving kindness that they would treat you with.

Alternatively, Preamplume says you can try this the other way around by imagining a loved one who’s compassionate towards you, and thinking about how they would compassionately respond to you if they knew about your difficulties.

4. Write a Letter to Yourself

“No one is flawless, and that is what makes each person exceptional,” Galica says. “Consider composing a letter to yourself that highlights your strengths and weaknesses, and learn to appreciate yourself for who you are.”

You may choose to write this letter to yourself from the perspective of someone unconditionally compassionate and loving. This being, imaginary or not, sees all parts of you and accepts you exactly as you are. Write this letter as kindly and compassionately as possible.

When you read the letter back to yourself, try to soak up all those kind words and compassion. You can keep this letter handy and read it whenever you need some extra support.

5. Reframe Negative Thoughts

When you’re mindful of your thoughts and observe them, you will also have the power to work with them and create healthier thought patterns.

“Be mindful of your self-talk and reframe negative thoughts in a more compassionate way. Instead of being critical and harsh, be kinder to yourself,” Galica says.

If you catch yourself being self-critical or unkind, take a step back and ask yourself if you can look at this situation in a more compassionate way. For example, Galica says it’s better to say, “I made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid,” instead of using self-deprecating language like “I’m so stupid.” You can do this out loud, in your head, or even in a journal. Find what works best for you.

6. Practice Self-Care

Taking good care of yourself is non-negotiable for your well-being. “Acknowledging your needs and honoring them without shame or judgment is a self-compassion practice in and of itself,” Preamplume says.

This can be especially helpful when you’re going through a difficult time. “When you feel low, avoid berating yourself,” Galica says. “Take the time to heal and engage in activities that make you feel good, such as spending time with loved ones, exercising, or listening to music.”

Actively taking care of yourself and meeting your needs is important when you’re struggling. Prioritize self-care activities that nourish your mind, body, and soul – things that make you feel happy, relaxed, or rejuvenated. Whether you love meditating outdoors or relaxing in a nice hot bath, find what works for you.

Self-compassion doesn’t mean that you need to only rely on yourself. Preamplume stresses the importance of connecting with the people you love as a form of self-care, too. Bonus points if they’re super compassionate people, too.

7. Try Supportive Touch

Supportive touch is a technique recommended by Dr. Kristin Neff herself. It’s a simple way to soothe yourself when you need help feeling safe or comforted since supportive touch can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you feel calm.

You can try this in a variety of ways, such as placing a hand to your heart, holding your face in your hands, holding your hand in your lap, or giving yourself a hug.

These physical gestures can serve as tangible reminders of your own kindness and care, helping you reconnect with your innate capacity for self-compassion.

However, self-compassion may be even more helpful for those who are perpetually unkind to themselves –those stuck in shame cycles or constantly beating themselves up for how they’re feeling or what they’re going through. Preamplume says this makes self-compassion helpful for people with mental health struggles such as eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders, depression, and more.

Can I Work on Self-Compassion With a Therapist?

Yes, absolutely. If you struggle with practicing self-compassion, this is a great thing to work on with a therapist. Not to mention, a therapist can also use other interventions to help you address any other mental health concerns to improve your overall psychological well-being. When you’re consulting with a new therapist, ask them if they have experience helping clients practice self-compassion.

Remember, you have the power to transform your relationship with yourself in a way that improves your well-being. Embracing self-compassion means giving yourself permission to be imperfect, to make mistakes, and to learn and grow from them. It’s about offering yourself the same love and understanding you give to others.

So, the next time you’re struggling or feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to pause and show yourself some love. You deserve it.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta is a licensed mental health counselor with over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She helps individuals overcome numerous issues, including stress and anxiety disorders, self-esteem issues, relationship issues, depression, behavioral issues, and grief.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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