The Power of Self-Compassion
As the Science Director of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, I know all too well that the term “self-compassion” can, at first impression, sound “soft” or idealistic. But self-compassion is anything but—it’s smart.
In fact, numerous studies have shown that self-compassion is one of the most fundamental determinants of resilience and success. Where self-criticism leaves us powerless and distraught, self-compassion is at the heart of empowerment. Self-compassion helps people thrive and is associated with higher psychological well-being, better physical health, and improved professional and personal skills.
What exactly is self-compassion? Self-compassion involves treating yourself as you would treat a friend who may not have lived up to expectations in a given situation. Rather than berating your friend for their mistake, most likely you would listen with understanding, and encourage them to remember that mistakes are only normal. Self-compassion is about treating yourself the same way.
Notably, self-compassion does not mean letting yourself off the hook when you fail or make mistakes. It simply means that you approach these setbacks in a more productive way: learning from them instead of beating yourself up. Self-compassion actually helps you see the areas of your professional or personal life in which you still need to grow, without taking those shortcomings personally.
The key to building self-compassion is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your thoughts and feelings, and to observe them with some perspective and distance. Instead of succumbing to a torrent of emotion, such as anger at yourself, you can observe the thoughts and feelings that come up, as you would observe a storm from your window until it passes. Mindfulness does not involve suppressing or denying these feelings, but rather being with them as they really are.
With mindfulness as your ally, here are three ways you can develop self-compassion in your own life.
First, notice your self-talk. Self-compassion involves treating oneself with understanding and patience rather than with shaming, criticism or harsh reprimand. It involves engaging in a positive and encouraging internal dialogue. So, when you notice yourself being unkind to yourself, see if you can simply mindfully notice what’s going on, and pause.
One of the pioneering researchers of self-compassion, Dr. Kristen Neff, suggests developing a self-compassion mantra or phrase that you can turn to when you notice self-criticism has arisen. Her own mantra is “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion I need.” Memorize your own mantra, and recite it whenever you become mindful of suffering being present in your experience.
The second step is to modify your language. When you’ve become aware of self-judgment, try using phrases like“Try better next time,” “You’re doing fine,” or “so you messed up this time, no big deal.” Instead of saying things like “How could I have done this, I’m such an idiot!” you might say “I had a moment of oversight and that’s ok, it could have happened to anyone, no big deal.” Try actually saying these phrases out loud, if you can.
Third, with mindfulness providing some balance and perspective, it’s easier to remember that, of course, everyone makes mistakes. After all, “to err is human,” as Alexander Pope wrote. You remind yourself that “this can happen to anyone” and that “everyone fails sometimes." This is what it means to be human.
If we can change our relationships to ourselves, not only will be happier, but we will be able to find more sustainable paths to success. We can build awareness of our own needs, and be kinder to ourselves when we face setbacks. We can still work hard and excel, but no longer at the price of our own wellbeing. That is the power of self-compassion.
Dr. Emma Seppälä is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and the author of The Happiness Track.