Self-Compassion For Dummies
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Self-compassion is a resource that every person possesses. When you encounter difficulty, when you fail at something, fall short in your efforts, or make a mistake, you may find that you hear the voice of an inner critic berating you for being imperfect. The key to finding a way through these inevitable challenges that life hands you is to be able to deploy the practice of self-compassion as soon as you are aware that you are struggling or suffering in some way. With steady and persistent practice, you can navigate more smoothly through the periodic storms that we all encounter in life.

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Becoming aware of your emotions

One of the keys to self-compassion is emotional acceptance. When you are facing a challenge, take some time to simply notice for yourself that you are feeling a difficult emotion of some kind. Pause and consider what emotions are arising within you, and see if you can come up with a label for what you are feeling, a name for the emotion. Some examples include the following:

  • Worry
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Confusion
  • Resentment
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Despair

Even if you’re not quite sure what you are feeling, that’s ok. Just simply experiencing the emotion is enough. And if you are aware of several emotions, see if you can pick out the one that is most prominent. What is the strongest emotion you are feeling in the moment?

After you have a name for the emotion, see if you can name it for yourself in a warm, kind, patient voice: “Oh, you’re feeling angry,” or “Grief. You’re experiencing grief right now.”

Dealing with difficult emotions

Self-compassion involves not only becoming more aware of your emotions but being able to gently deal with them when you are having a hard time. Most emotions manifest somehow in the body, through a tightness in the jaw, an ache in the heart, or a hollowness in the belly. These bodily sensations that arise when we are suffering are more slow-moving and allow us to marshal our resources to practice self-compassion with them.

While you are in the midst of a strong emotion that you may have been able to name, scan your body for where you feel it most easily. In your mind’s eye, sweep over your body from head to toe, stopping where you can sense a little tension or discomfort. Just feel what is “feel-able” in your body. You might even be able to choose a single location in your body where the feeling expresses itself most strongly, like muscle tension in your neck, a painful feeling in your stomach, or a throbbing in your head.

Softening: Physical self-compassion

Self-compassion can take many forms, but a natural first step after locating a difficult emotional experience in the body is to bring the warmth and kindness to the body itself as a kind of proxy for our whole selves.

Begin by softening into the location that you have found in your body that holds some of the struggle or suffering. Let the muscles soften and relax, as if you were slipping into a nice warm bath. Softening . . . softening . . . softening. It’s helpful to remind yourself that you aren’t trying to change the feelings, but you are simply learning to hold them in a tender, more understanding way. You can even begin by simply softening a little bit around the edges of the sensation in your body.

Soothing: Emotional self-compassion

As you’re ready, take some time to soothe yourself simply because this situation is difficult. You might wish to place a hand over the part of your body where you are feeling the discomfort and sense the warmth and gentle touch of your hand, maybe even imagining warmth and kindness flowing from your hand into your body. Sometimes it can be helpful to imagine your body as if it was the body of a beloved child or pet who is struggling. Soothing . . . soothing . . . soothing.

You might even have some self-soothing or comforting words you would want to offer yourself in this moment. What would come out of your mouth if you were soothing a dear friend who was struggling in a similar way? Perhaps you would be saying something like “I’m so sorry you feel this way,” or “I care deeply about you and I’m here for you.” Allow the words to land and let yourself feel soothed by them.

Allowing: Mental self-compassion

People often give well-meaning advice to others about how they should “just accept” things when they are challenging, difficult, or painful. This approach is a challenge for at least two reasons. First of all, it’s awfully hard to do, so when someone says “just accept it,” it can sound dismissive and demeaning. Second, the word “accept” has all sorts of baggage that suggests things like surrender, giving up, and passivity. This is not what “accept” means, but this is often our first reaction to the word.

Instead, I would invite you to let go of accepting and instead focus on allowing, which is about mentally allowing things to be here that are already here anyway. You may not have to embrace an emotional visitor when one arrives on your doorstep, but you certainly do have to allow for the possibility that it is here when it actually is! Denial and resistance are futile, but allowing opens the door to a more harmonious relationship with an emotional visitor.

Take the time to simply allow the difficult emotion to be here. Make room for it and let go of the incessant need that arises to make it go away. Say to yourself “allowing . . . allowing . . . allowing.” Simply allow yourself to be just as you are, just like this, if only for this one solitary moment.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Steven Hickman, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist; retired Associate Clinical Professor, University of California at San Diego School of Medicine; and Executive Director of the non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. He has trained hundreds of teachers of mindfulness and compassion-based programs and is highly regarded as a speaker, teacher, and author.

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