What is self-compassion — and why does it matter?

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Learning to show yourself kindness and compassion can benefit your health — both physically and mentally

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As the uncertainty in all of our lives continues, it’s understandable to sometimes feel overwhelmed, stressed and anxious.

But there’s something a growing number of people are turning to that can help — the practice of self-compassion.

At its core, this is simply about treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you would show a close friend. And it comes with benefits not only to your emotional wellbeing, but also to your physical health.

1. Self-kindness

Being warm, understanding and kind towards yourself when you’re suffering, feeling inadequate or as though you’ve failed

2. Common humanity

Recognising that you’re not alone and that suffering is part of the shared human experience

3. Mindfulness

Observing and ‘sitting with’ your feelings as they are (see below), without trying to suppress, judge or deny them

Do you need to be more self-compassionate?

Here are some signs that it might be good for you:

  • You beat yourself up emotionally with negative self-talk
  • You find it hard to care for yourself, for example by eating healthily and exercising regularly
  • You have little or no work-life balance
  • You suppress and ignore your emotions
  • You’re critical and unforgiving of what you perceive to be your faults, mistakes and weaknesses
  • You always feel anxious and tense
  • You live in the past and the future — not the present
  • You drink, overeat, or smoke too much as a way to numb your feelings
  • You replay conversations and situations in your head, wishing you’d done things differently
  • You’re always comparing yourself to others in a negative way

What’s the point in being more self-compassionate?

1. It lowers anxiety and stress

Giving and receiving care to others is part of the human survival instinct, that helps us feel safe and connected to family and friends.

Showing this same care to ourselves also activates this system through self-soothing activities, like touch and kind self-talk. This triggers the release of the love or bonding hormone oxytocin, which can help reduce anxiety, stress and fear. Oxytocin is produced when we touch ourselves and others, hug and have sex. It’s also produced by new mothers when they caress their baby, and also during breastfeeding.

2. It can improve physical health

Oxytocin reduces levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin. Chronically raised levels of stress hormones can be harmful to the body, contributing to problems with your digestive, reproductive and circulatory systems.

3. It might support immunity

When stress hormones are elevated for long periods, the immune system can become weakened too. Being kinder to yourself calms the heart rate, toning down the body’s fight-or-flight stress response – helping reduce stress hormone levels.

4. It could help you cope with pain

Research shows that self-compassion helped women cope better with difficulties relating to chronic pain. It also helped them engage more in activities they enjoyed — despite the pain — which helped decrease depressive symptoms.

5. It might help you reach your goals

Being more accepting and compassionate toward yourself — and less critical — makes you better able to deal with failure. That means you’re more likely to take the calculated risks needed to reach your goals.

A recent study shows that people who were low in self-compassion were more likely to experience psychological distress when they had a setback. This often caused them to disengage and give up.

On the other hand, the more self-compassionate people were less likely to show negative emotional reactions. Self-compassion can help you perceive setbacks as a normal part of life. That means you’re more able to regulate your emotions when things don’t go to plan (which is often!)

How to be more self-compassionate, every day

Self-compassion is a skill that takes practice. These tools can help:

Use self-soothing phrases

Learn some phrases that resonate with you that you can repeat silently whenever you feel anxious, overwhelmed or distressed. Kristin Neff suggests these:

  • May I be kind to myself in this moment
  • May I give myself the compassion I need
  • May I learn to accept myself as I am
  • May I forgive myself
  • May I be strong
  • May I be patient

Rate your behaviour, not yourself

This means reframing your inner critic in a friendly, positive way. For example, rather than feeling bad and disgusted with yourself for overeating, instead tell yourself: ‘I know you ate all the chocolate/biscuits, but that’s okay. You’re feeling sad and you thought it would help. But it’s made you feel even worse. Why not go for a long walk so you feel better instead?’

Keep a self-compassion journal

Try this for a week or so. Every evening, write down the day’s events that have made you feel bad about yourself. Maybe you were rude to someone or didn’t call a friend when you said you would.

Rather than berating yourself, write down how you feel — for example, you’re disappointed in yourself. Then think about what led you to behave that way: were you frustrated? Tired? Or feeling overworked?

Write down some words of kindness and comfort toward yourself. Forgive yourself and accept that you messed up — maybe you can do it differently next time.

Take a moment to listen to yourself

You might be a good listener for others, but self-compassion is about becoming a good listener for yourself too. Try this whenever you feel anxious, overwhelmed or self-critical:

  • Take a moment to sit quietly and focus on your breathing
  • Notice and name your emotional experience — for example ‘I’m feeling anxious’
  • Become aware of where you feel it in your body. It may be a tightness in your chest or throat. Emotions are commonly felt somewhere in the body as physical sensations
  • Remind yourself that you’re not alone, that everyone feels like this at times and that it’s only a feeling; it will pass. And it can’t hurt you
  • Soothe yourself with kind words or gestures — what would you say to or do for a friend feeling like this?
  • Place your hand where you feel the emotion most intensely in your body (this is commonly the heart, throat or abdomen but may be somewhere else for you) and gently breathe. Focus on the warmth of your hand and allow yourself to feel more soothed, accepted and loved.

Reviewed By: Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi

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