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Be Kind to Yourself: Understanding and Implementing Self-Compassion

U.S. Army Spc. Mahalia Reevey, a soldier assigned to the New Jersey Army National Guard, poses in front of a shattered mirror for a portrait. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht)

The golden rule encourages you to treat others how you want to be treated. However, can you truly do that if you’re not nice to yourself? The first step before lending a helping hand to others is to be kind to you – practice self-compassion. You can do this by taking steps to understand what being compassionate means.

“To have compassion is to suffer together,” said Deployment Health Clinical Center Clinical Psychologist and Special Assistant to the Director Dr. Christina Schendel. “As humans, we have a capacity to have empathy for other humans or animals. Compassion requires a feeling of wanting to do something.”

You may notice the compassionate gestures of others. Whether it is giving a homeless person something to eat or helping an elderly woman carry groceries to her car, these acts show willingness to react and make a difference.

Areas of Self-Compassion

Self-compassion focuses on three areas:

  • Self-kindness: Being kind to yourself by accepting that mistakes will happen and you can handle them, or develop ways to correct.
  • Sense of humanity: Acknowledging that the human experience is larger than you. Everyone goes through similar, if not the same, difficulties that you do. Awareness can help you process your experiences.
  • Mindfulness: Focusing on the here and now helps you stay active and present in your current situation. Also, not ignoring or exaggerating feelings you have can help you understand how to cope with something difficult or exciting.

“In order to have a self-compassionate attitude you must have a balanced view of your surroundings and yourself,” said Schendel. “Staying present and accepting your life where it is rather than ignoring it helps you become thoughtful and kind to yourself without giving yourself a pass.”

Self-compassionate vs. Self-Centered

Many people have a skewed view of what self-compassion means. Some people confuse this trait with others that focus on self, such as self-indulgent or self-centered. But they are quite different.  Schendel shared that according to research, self-compassionate individuals actually experience less depression, issues of perfectionism and stress. Those who live with a self-compassionate mindset are less likely to:

  • Make excuses for their failures
  • Have low self-esteem or feel self-pity
  • Be overly critical and harsh to themselves

“You will notice increased personal standards, greater creativity and higher levels of confidence in your abilities when you are self-compassionate,” said Schendel.

Improving Your Self-Talk

Now that you know what it means to be self-compassionate, how do you start applying those things to your life?

The first step toward improving self-compassion is to pay attention to how critical you are on yourself. You may find – like many of us — that your self-critical voice is so common that you don’t even notice it. To learn more about your inner voice, ask yourself questions like:

  • What words do I use when I speak to myself?
  • Do key phrases come up constantly?
  • What is my tone of voice? Is it harsh, cold or angry?
  • Does my inner voice remind me of someone from my past?

Your answers to these questions can help you identify where you need to improve in your journey toward self-compassion. If you notice negative self-talk, imagine what a close, supportive friend would say to you, or what you would say to them, and say those things to yourself.

Goals for New Behavior

When you are ready to make long-lasting changes, try to use S.M.A.R.T goals: specific, measureable, achievable, realistic and time-bound goals. Practicing any new behavior is challenging and setbacks happen.  Leverage the technology you use every day to set yourself up for success. Set alarms or daily reminders with motivational words and videos to help lift your spirits. Create a photo album with images that make you smile and feel better about yourself. Or, forgo the electronics and try memorizing compassionate phrases that you can say to yourself throughout the day.

Helpful Resources

The National Center for Telehealth & Technology mobile applications Mindfulness Coach and Breathe2Relax are excellent ways to track your self-compassionate behaviors.

In Mindfulness Coach, you can find educational material on mindfulness as well as nine forms of meditation. Each meditation includes voice-guided instructions, with captions, for self-guided sessions.

With Breathe2Relax, you will learn breathing exercises to help decrease your physical stress response, steady your mood, and control anxiety and anger.

If you want to see how self-compassionate you currently are, Schendel recommends taking this self-compassion quiz.

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This page was last updated on: June 14, 2017.