Self-compassion may call to mind weakness or fragility, the inability to cope with life’s harsh truths and situations. It may evoke images of people who hug themselves, speak breathlessly of raising self-esteem, and become overwhelmed at the challenge of parallel parking.
I’ve covered elsewhere how beneficial it is for you to take care of others, but what about taking care of yourself?
Self-compassion vs. Self-esteem
Many people think self-compassion is synonymous with self-esteem. Self-esteem refers to your opinion of your own worth. The problem is that people compare themselves with others to determine their worth. As Teddy Roosevelt said a century ago, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Research has confirmed Roosevelt’s sentiment by finding that self-compassion trumps self-esteem for producing emotional intelligence. This emotional intelligence includes greater stability and regulation of one’s own emotions. A pair of studies showed that students who had self-compassion also had healthy coping strategies for dealing with failure.
Other studies have shown that self-compassion allows people to handle negative situations and emotions with fewer of the problems of self-esteem, such as narcissism or defensiveness. Self-compassion has been linked to personal initiative, curiosity, conscientiousness, and happiness.
Benefits of Self-compassion
Self-compassion is simply taking care of yourself. Through awareness of your physical, mental, and emotional condition, you identify your needs and address them. You don’t beat yourself up over failure. Instead, you recognize that failure is a universal experience.
In case you’re worried that you’ll shy away from challenge if you embrace self-compassion, relax. The pair of studies referenced above indicate that those who have self-compassion are less likely to avoid challenges. Why? The studies don’t say, but I suspect it’s because they understand that failure is a part of life and a key to learning.
If you’ve been raised to believe that you need to put others ahead of yourself, keep in mind that you can’t give what you don’t have. In other words, in the long run, you can’t take care of others very well (or at all) if you’re not taking care of yourself. So let go of the guilt and start doing what you must to take care of your own needs.
How to Practice Self-compassion
Easier said than done, right? A key way to grow your capacity for compassion is to practice mindfulness. Doing so develops your awareness of your needs as well as others’ needs. Dr. Richard Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin has shown how compassion can be cultivated through mindfulness, actually changing the physical structures of our brains for the better.
Try the exercise below to rewire your brain for self-compassion once or more per day for a few weeks. You’ll make yourself better able to handle failure, regulate your emotions, and enjoy life.
Sit comfortably. Close your eyes to stay focused. Take several deep, slow breaths to settle yourself.
Silently say the following phrases to yourself: May I be safe and free from suffering. May I be happy and healthy. May I have peace and well being.
Repeat the phrases, pausing after each one and noticing what you sense in yourself.
Call to mind someone, past or present, who has cared about you unconditionally. It could even be a pet. Recall their compassion for you. With their compassion for you fresh in your mind, repeat the phrases again.
Take a few more deep, slow breaths.
Vow to notice your needs throughout the day and to take action to meet them.