Are you feeling stressed? Having self-compassion may be one of the easiest yet most effective a strategy for not just getting through, but thriving during challenges, whatever they might be.
Whilst it may sound strange or even radical, extensive well-being benefits of self-compassion has been shown by large number of research over the last decade. Individuals who are more self- compassionate tend to have greater life satisfaction, happiness, motivation, better relationships, physical health, and even suffer less from anxiety and depression. They also have the resilience to cope with stressful events in life such as losing someone, health issues, professional setbacks and even trauma.
In this short article, we will explore self-compassion and how we can start incorporating it into our lives.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion involves treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time or just going through a challenging life event. It is the act of having empathy for oneself — showing care, concern, and acceptance of own feelings without any judgement.
For example, imagine that your friend calls you after her pitch failed the land the coveted client account, and this is how the conversation goes.
Your friend says, “I am gutted. I put my best into that pitch. I knew my subject inside and out, and can’t believe we lost the account.”
You respond, “Honestly, I don’t think you did. You should have worked harder. You lost the account because you were not up to the task.”
Would you ever talk this way to someone you care about? Of course not. But this is precisely the type of things we say to ourselves in such situations.
With self-compassion, we learn to speak to ourselves like we speak to a good friend. “Are you ok? You must be so upset. Remember I am here for you. Is there anything I can do to help?”.
Whilst being a fundamental human trait, self-compassion can be a tricky subject for many in the misbelief that it is an undesirable quality for the self-disciplined.
In fact, self-compassion has nothing to do with a pity or weakness. Self-compassion allows us to mindfully observe how we are feeling, so that we can cope with it more effectively and constructively.
Let’s discover the fundamental mechanism through which self-compassion benefits our well-being.
The Physiology of Self-Compassion
When we criticise ourselves, we inadvertently activate our body’s ‘fight or flight’ system, which puts us on high alert in anticipation of a threat. With self-criticism, we are both the attacker (the threat) and the attacked but unfortunately our nervous system has not evolved to differentiate between real and perceived threat.
If self-criticism is habitual, our body’s ‘fight or flight’ system will remain activated putting huge amounts of stress on the body and mind.
Self-compassion helps to downregulate the ‘fight or flight’ response and activate the care system, releasing powerful hormones -oxytocin and endorphins-, which in turn helps reduce stress and increase feelings of safety and security.
How do you use Self-Compassion to reduce stress?
Self-compassion is a skill that can be learned and cultivated with a wide variety of practices and exercises.
As a starter, I would like to share few exercises that you can use whenever you struggle or feel in the grip of self-criticism or when you want to help motivate yourself to make a change. Try and see if they resonate with you.
Exercise 1. Moments of self-compassion
When you are facing emotional or mental stress or pain, simply ask the question “What do I need right now?”, allowing yourself a moment of self-compassion as if to say, “I am here and listening”, just like you would to a friend.
You may not have answers or the ability to meet your own needs at the time. But it is ok! This simple question is there to notice your experiences as they are, without labelling them as right or wrong or burying them as if nothing is happening. This non-judgmental curiosity enables reducing your stress by more effectively identifying and therefore addressing your needs.
Exercise 2. Write a Letter to Yourself
You can find your compassionate voice by writing a letter to yourself. It may feel out of your comfort zone at first, but will get easier with practice.
You can write the letter in different ways. Here are few options to try:
1. Write the letter as if you were talking to a dear friend who was struggling with the same issues and concerns as you.
2. Think of an individual who has shown unconditional love and compassion for you and write the letter to yourself from the perspective of that individual.
Once you write the letter, you can read it whether you need it, letting the words soothe and comfort you when you need it most.