Self-compassion is not easy to come by for many of us. Instead, our default reaction is to blame ourselves, lash out (again at ourselves) and possibly keep asking, “what is wrong with me?”
But cultivating self-compassion is exactly what we need, especially when it comes to facing tough times – and my not-so favorite activity of feeling your feelings.
When we’re unable to cope healthfully with emotions, we stuff them down. We might stuff them down with food or excessive exercise or other unhealthy habits.
But here’s the thing about emotions (which I have to keep reminding myself of): They don’t just vanish.
As researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D, writes in her book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, not only has research shown that we’re unable to suppress unwanted thoughts and feelings but when we try, both seem to get stronger.
That’s where self-compassion comes in. You can use self-compassion to deal with difficult emotions. Research shows, Neff says, that “self-compassion is a major protective factor for anxiety and depression.”
Self-compassion has other related benefits, too. Neff writes:
“Research shows that self-compassionate people tend to experience fewer negative emotions-such as fear, irritability, hostility or distress-than those who lack self-compassion. These emotions still come up, but they aren’t as frequent, long lasting or persistent. This is partly because self-compassionate people have been found to ruminate much less than those who lack self-compassion. Rumination is often fueled by feelings of fear, shame and inadequacy. Because self-compassion directly counters these insecurities, it can help unravel the knot of negative rumination as surely as detangling spray.”
According to Neff, self-compassion has three components: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. And all three can help.
One tool that Neff suggests for processing emotions is a self-compassion journal. We know that journaling helps us to feel our feelings in a healthy way, and studies have shown that it contributes to one’s well-being.
What do you write? “In your journal, write down anything that you felt bad about, anything you judged yourself for, any difficult experience that caused you pain.”
Then, use all three self-compassion components:
Bring awareness to your emotions. “Write about how you felt: sad, ashamed, frightened, stressed and so on. As you write, try to be accepting and nonjudgmental of your experience, not belittling it nor making it overly dramatic.”
Common humanity is about realizing that we all share common experiences, that we all suffer and go through bad times. So “Write down the ways in which your experience was connected to the larger human experience.” Neff also says that this might mean “acknowledging that being human means being imperfect.”
You also can consider the underlying causes of your pain, she suggests.
Here, you’d “write yourself some kind, understanding words of comfort.”
Say you were angry with a waitress who took forever to get your check, and you left without leaving a tip and now feel horrible. Neff gives the following example of self-kindness: “It’s okay. You messed up but it isn’t the end of the world. I understand how frustrated you were and you just lost it. I know how much you value being kind to other people and how badly you feel right now. Maybe you can try being extra patient and generous to any waitstaff this week.”
Self-compassion has especially helped Neff deal with her own despair over her son’s autism. She writes:
“When my mind would start to walk down the dark alley of fear – What’s going to happen to him? Will he ever live independently? Will he ever have a job, a family? – I would try to stay in the present moment. I am here, right now. Rowan is safe and happy. I have no idea what’s going to happen to him, or what his future holds. It’s a mystery, but running away with my fear is not going to help. Let me focus on calming and comforting myself. Poor darling, I know how incredibly difficult it is for you right now…When I soothed my troubled mind with this kind of caring concern, I was able to stay centered without being overwhelmed, realizing that whatever Rowan’s future held, I loved him exactly as he was.”
If something goes wrong in her life, Neff says the following phrases, which I think are pretty powerful:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.
Do you think self-compassion can help you feel your feelings? What does self-compassion mean to you? What helps you process emotions in a healthy way?
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Last reviewed: 10 Jun 2011