How would you rate your self-compassion on a scale of 1-10?
What even is self-compassion?
Self-compassion has been defined as:
“the capacity to comfort and sooth ourselves, and to motivate ourselves with encouragement when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate.” Chris Germer from the Centre for Mindful Self-Compassion
“being kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings…” Kristen Neff PhD
So when it comes to your path to better health, self-compassion could look like:
- Speaking kindly to yourself when things don’t go according to plan
- Letting go of harsh criticisms of yourself i.e. the inner bully
- Observing your “slip ups” with a non-judgmental attitude and learning from them rather than beating yourself up
- Being your own cheerleader and believing in yourself
- Understanding that perfection doesn’t exist and failure is part of the journey
Being kind to ourselves and showing self-compassion is becoming increasing difficult in today’s world. With a constant barrage of seemingly perfect others to compare ourselves to on social media, TV and advertisements, it’s no wonder that we can often we left feeling less than and telling ourselves we don’t measure up. These comparisons then become the ammunition for the mental weapon which we turn towards ourselves.
Sometimes the language of negative self-talk becomes so engrained into our psyche that we don’t notice it. How many times have you thought to yourself “I’m so stupid”, “I never get things right”, “What’s the point, I’m a failure”, “I’ll never be like that”. All of these thoughts create a mental environment that keep us stuck in our same old habits and routines, unable to break free and move towards our vision of better health and overall life happiness. Speaking to ourselves harshly sets off a cascade of chemical reactions in our bodies which then influence the trillions of cells and change the way they function.
Self-compassion and holistic health
Part of my coaching as a Women’s Wellness Coach involves supporting women to love themselves and believe in themselves more. Not only because having a positive self-image is part of holistic wellness but also because negative self-talk and lack of confidence can be a major barrier to change in all other areas of health improvement including diet, movement and stress management. Research shows that rather than being motivated by criticism from ourselves and others, we are more likely to feel like a failure and give up altogether.
On the other hand, self-efficacy, that is the belief that we can take action and succeed in a particular situation, is associated with positive behaviour change and health outcomes. Self-efficacy goes hand in hand with self-compassion because without kindness and understanding how can we expect to believe in ourselves enough to make change? If we believe that every time we fall off the wagon or don’t achieve the results we expect, it’s because we are a failure and not because the goal was unrealistic, we didn’t have the resources we needed or life just got in the way, how easy will it be to get back up and try again?
When we react to our mistakes with self-compassion, it is much easier to pick ourselves up and get back on track rather than enter a negative spiral. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) describes how our thoughts create feelings which in turn affect our behaviours and our physical state. Negative self-talk can make us feel worse about ourselves and not want to do things to take care of ourselves holistically. On the other hand, showing self-compassion creates more positive feelings of acceptance, gratitude and peace which are more likely to trigger us to act in ways that support our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Image credit: Toronto Psychology Clinic
How can we develop self-compassion?
Developing self-compassion first requires becoming mindful of the thought tapes that are playing in our minds and where we could be harming ourselves with our self-talk. Whether you realise it or not, you are talking to yourself all day long via your thoughts! These can be thoughts about what is going on in the world around you but we often also have thoughts about ourselves and our actions or how other people see us. If you are not used to paying attention to your thoughts, this can come as a shock once you realise the constant chatter that is the backdrop for your life.
A useful experiment is to carry a small notebook with you over a 24 hour period and whenever you notice a self-judgement pop up, write it down. At the end of the experiment, reflect on what you have written. How many times did you judge yourself? In what situations? Were your judgements mostly positive or negative? If you find that you are often criticising yourself and your day is packed with negative self-talk, it’s maybe a good idea to focus on developing your self-compassion. Remember, if you find that your self-talk is very negative, not to use this as yet another thing to criticise yourself about. Instead see it as a starting point and something you can improve on over time.
Thought replacement/inner dialogues
Unfortunately, we can’t simply tell our brains to stop thinking, nor can we just turn off the thoughts we don’t like. Instead, we can create balance by countering any negative thoughts with more compassionate ones. This could look like a dialogue in your mind between your harsh inner critic and your kind inner cheerleader or coach. For example:
Inner critic: “Why did I eat so much food at the party? I wasn’t even hungry, why am I always so greedy!”
Inner coach: “Ok, perhaps you ate more than you planned to today. Why was that do you think? Is there something that you need? Is there something you could do differently next time?”
Inner cheerleader: “Parties are for enjoying! You ate really healthily this week and you noticed the benefits. Let it go and carry on with your plan”
If it helps, you can actually imagine these different perspectives as characters. Naming your inner critic or your inner bully and visualising it as a saboteur that creeps around your mind can really help you to separate you from your thoughts and judgements about yourself. These are thoughts that are occurring automatically and you are the one that is witnessing and experiencing the effects of these thoughts.
If you struggle to do this mentally, you can also put the dialogue on paper. As you review your thought journal, pick out some key themes or areas where you criticise yourself and experiment with writing a response from a more compassionate perspective. This might feel uncomfortable or be challenging at first but the more you practice, the easier and more natural it will become. If you have children, it might come more easily as we usually try to see the best in our children and see the bigger picture of what might have influenced their actions rather than blaming them personally.
Another way to counter negative self-talk is to try to crowd out the negative thoughts with more positive or neutral thoughts. Affirmations are statements that we can repeat to ourselves to program our minds to think differently. We are always making affirmations whether we realise it or not. Our thoughts create pathways in our mind and the more a thought is repeated, the deeper and more defined the pathway becomes making it easier to automatically think that thought again in the future. This is why over 90% of our thoughts tend to be the same from day to day!
If our habitual thoughts (i.e. affirmations) are negative judgements of ourselves, this is going to affect our ability to feel positive emotions and create the life we wish to live. Consciously repeating positive affirmations can help by planting the seed of more positive thoughts that are in line with our goals and our ideal vision of ourselves. Affirmations don’t have to be extreme and cheesy, in fact, if they are too outside of our current view of ourselves, they can have the opposite effect.
For example, someone who looks in the mirror and finds themselves ugly might repeat an affirmation such as “I may not be perfect but I accept myself the way I am and I know I am more than my physical appearance” rather than “I am beautiful” which might feel unrealistic and difficult to relate to.
Repeating affirmations like these just for a few minutes each day can start to change the usual narrative of thoughts that we experience. Even if initially it is only 1 positive thought followed by 99 negative ones, it is a start and a foundation to build on. Like any habit, conscious repetition leads to mastery. So whilst it might seem too simple to work, practicing positive affirmations daily can really work wonders over time.
Practice acceptance and forgiveness
Self-compassion is not about believing that we are perfect and never make mistakes. It is more about understanding that inevitably, because we are human, we will have flaws and act in ways that we later regret. It is being able to continue to show unconditional love for ourselves through these moments and not to take everything so personally. Instead of that age-old saying of treat others like you would like to be treated yourself, self-compassion is treating yourself as kindly as you would others you love.
In moments where you feel the inner critic rear its’ head, take a deep breath and let it go. Remind yourself that you are only human and we all make mistakes or feel like we don’t measure up. How many times have others in your life made mistakes or been less than perfect? How many times have you forgiven or accepted others just the way they are? Start to offer this acceptance and forgiveness to yourself and you will be on your way to developing self-compassion.
Meditation to develop self-compassion
An excellent way to combine these three elements of developing self-compassion (mindfulness, thought replacement and positive affirmations) is through guided meditations. My absolute favourite channel for guided meditations on Youtube is the Mindful Movement and I always recommend their meditations to my clients. Try out this meditation for connection and compassion below.
Over to you…
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