How to Build Fierce Self-Compassion

Part 1 of our series.

To begin building our compassion muscle we have to take a brave look inward. We first have to have compassion for ourselves before we can become healthy and productive compassion warriors for others. Dr. Kristin Neff from the University of California at Berkeley is one of the leading pioneers in self-compassion research. She has developed courses to enhance self-compassion, has published a book, and has written several articles pertaining to self-compassion. According to Dr. Neff’s research there are three elements of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness. Being gentle to oneself in times of suffering or failure is at the core of self-compassion. Self-kindness is not self-judgement. Self-kindness is having an understanding that failure and pain throughout life is inevitable; therefore getting angry at one’s experiences is not an option. We are able to let go of self-judgement because the pain is accepted and recognized as a natural course that has to be taken. For example, allow yourself to say “This is difficult for me right now, and I am in pain” rather than, “I should not be upset about this, I need to move on.”
  2. Common Humanity. Suffering is part of being a human on planet earth. Each individual you come across on a daily basis has and will experience suffering. One who is self-compassionate recognizes that they are not alone in their suffering. They understand that others have experienced similar pain, therefore isolation does not occur.
  3. Mindfulness. As with self-kindness, mindfulness is non-judgemental and is accepting of reality. Through mindfulness, one practices observing thoughts and feelings as they are in the present without denying their existence. You cannot deny your thoughts and emotions, while being compassionate towards them at the same time.

In the three elements above you may notice that the elimination of pain and suffering is not discussed. Self-compassion is not practiced for the sole purpose of making the pain and suffering go away. In fact, when you begin to build your compassion muscle, you may find that the pain gets worse. When we are not compassionate towards ourselves, we will hide our pain and shove it deep down inside. However, as explained above, to be self-compassionate one must acknowledge their pain. You must meet that pain head on and take care of your mind and body as needed. You may choose to use deep breathing, mindfulness walks, therapy, or you may even have to step away from the pain for a moment. Thankfully, as we discussed with common humanity, you are not alone. There are plenty of skills that can be developed to combat the pain the has existed, but is finally being acknowledged. To begin, take this self-assessment created by Dr. Neff to gather an understanding of how self-compassionate you already are. You may find that your score was higher than expected, or you may be heading down a road of self-judgement because your score is lower than expected. If you are overwhelmed due to the questions that were asked or the results you received, try an easy ground technique called 54321. Take a mindful pause with a few deep breaths to acknowledge your score. Consider questions such as, “Where can I improve?” or “What do I wish was different?”. Even if your score is high, there is always room for growth. Below are three exercises build your compassion muscle and improve self-compassion.

  1. Write a letter to yourself. Identify something about yourself that you are critical about or a time in your life where you felt ashamed, embarrassed, or not good enough. It could be anything from your personality, your body, a relationship — anything. Write down details and how you felt in those moments. Be sure to be as honest as you can; no one has to see this but you. Now, continue the letter, but write to yourself expressing compassion, acceptance, and love. Come back to this letter in a few days and use it as a compassionate reminder to love yourself. For more details on writing a compassionate letter to yourself, click here.
  2. Take a 5 minute self-compassion break. Guided meditation can be a helpful and productive form of practicing self-compassion. Here you can find an audio clip produced by Dr. Neff. This audio clip is approximately 5 minutes long and will guide you through a mindfulness activity to enhance your compassion muscle.
  3. Develop a mantra. Find a phrase that resonates with you that you can use when your start to become critical of yourself. Repeat this phrase as many times as needed. You may even try placing your hand over your heart. A few phrases that Dr. Neff suggests are:
    • “Suffering is a part of life.”
    • “May I be kind to myself in this moment.”
    • “May I give myself the compassion I need.”

Above are a few examples of exercises you can complete on a daily basis to build your compassion muscles. Give yourself a month of consistent self-compassion, then retake the assessmentdiscussed previously. Did your results change? Did your score increase? As always, be kind to yourself with whatever results your receive and continue working towards living compassionately towards yourself. For more exercises and guided meditations by Dr. Neff click here, and stay tuned for the next segment of our compassion series for more information on mindfulness practices!

Remember: Self-compassion is choosing not to feel sorry for yourself, loving yourself unconditionally, and making yourself aware of your wants and needs.

If you continually struggle with self-compassion, or find that your past experiences are too painful to face on your own, consider seeking support from a trusted therapist. In a safe environment, a therapist can guide you through processing your experiences and work to identify your self-defeating beliefs. At Carolina Pediatric Therapy, we have a team of behavioral health therapists who are prepared to walk beside you on your journey. Our behavioral health team will provide you with skills to become a compassion warrior. To schedule an appointment with a behavioral health therapist at Carolina Pediatric Therapist, call 828.398.0043 or click here for more information.

How to Build Fierce Self-Compassion
Adrienne Stover, MS, LPCA

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