A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life. ~Christopher Germer
Difficult stressful situations are harder when we criticise ourselves harshly. Reminding ourselves unduly of our mistakes and inadequacies is debilitating. When we beat ourselves up over our difficulties, again and again, seeing them as a sign that we are defective or even worthless, is demoralising. We often judge ourselves more harshly than we would judge others, which makes us feel isolated, unhappy and anxious. The practice of the self-compassion break is a simple way to introduce more kindness to yourself in a stressful moment when you need it most.
Learning self-compassion is the most important life skill. It is part of basic emotional hygiene. When times are tough instead of making ourselves feel worst with inner-criticism, we turn to ourselves as we would to a friend to be supportive and caring. Personally, this has been the most important life skill that I have cultivated. When I am understanding and sympathetic to my own hardship, I have more courage, I think more clearly and I deal more effectively with the challenges in my life. Self-compassion is an unlimited source of resilience, strength, vitality and creativity.
Paul Gilbert defined compassion as “the sensitivity that we experience to the suffering of self and others, associated with a deep wish and commitment to relieve and prevent suffering. Kristin Neff further defines self-compassion in terms of three aspects which includes mindfulness, common humanity and kindness.
Mindfulness is defined as the opposite of over-identification. It is the practice of being present to what is happening in a way that we postpone reactivity. In our practice we become less judgmental and more accepting; being with what is, as it is in order to gain a balanced perspective so we can act more skillfully. In the practice of mindfulness, we learn to make space, to allow the difficult emotions, to de-fuse from our unhelpful stories by becoming the observer, stepping out of thoughts in order to gain clarity and balance. We attend to our difficulties without identifying with them, knowing that we can stand with a larger sense of self.
Common humanity is the understanding that unfortunately, life is tough for everyone. When something goes wrong, when our expectations are not met, we feel as if we are the only one who has messed up. But we are just like other human beings who go through hardships, experience pain, failures, rejections, frustrations and disappointments. We all have feelings of sadness, anxiety and anger ‘just like me’. Self-compassion is about remembering my shared human experience and that I am not alone, I have company in my struggle.
Being kind to myself involves that, once I notice that I am struggling, I choose to pay attention to my needs because I am struggling. I recognize that being imperfect, failing and hardships are inevitable so I avoid harsh inner criticism. Self-compassion means that I aim to accept that I can’t always be who I want to be, but, I can still give myself the care that I need. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward myself when I suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring my pain or beating myself up with criticism. When life is tough, if I enter into a war against myself, life becomes even more difficult, so if I can meet myself with more kindness and understanding I gain resilience, courage and equanimity.
Self-compassion is a powerful source of motivation
We are led to believe in our competitive world that self-criticism and self-punishment will drive us to perform better. However harsh inner self-criticism, especially in time of hardship and disappointments, can create a war within which causes anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Harsh self-criticism, actually, prevent us from reaching our full potential and being at our best. The research has found that naturally self-compassionate people tend to have better mental health, with high standard, work hard and achieve well. Because they don’t beat themselves up unduly, they are creative, confident, honest and genuine. They take responsibility for their action while taking care of themselves and their partners. They have the courage and are very motivated being more likely to persevere with their goals in line with their core values.
Self-compassion is like being a good parent to yourself, where you care, seek goals and healthy lifestyle in the short-term and long-term that are actually in your own best interest. For example, self-compassion training has been found to help both anorexics and people who are overweight. Self-compassion is a way to motivate and encourage ourselves in what matters most for ourselves and others. In becoming our own best friend we also improve our relationships with others.
Try a Self-Compassion Break
The Self-Compassion Break is one of the most popular and effective exercises that we teach in the mindful self-compassion program. The aim of the practice is to develop a sense of care with ourselves which also promote a sense of connection with others. This informal practice can be done first, as a short meditation (see link in the resource page in this website) but after being familiar with the 3 steps, it can be done informally quickly (few seconds) anywhere, any time when you find yourself struggling.
The three steps are:
1. Pause: we take a moment of mindfulness to acknowledge and validate our current struggle (mindfulness)
2. Recognize: we all suffer in this world. This is a moment when we can connect with our common humanity. Like all other human beings, we are imperfect and that failure, rejections, mistakes and hardships are experienced by everyone.
3. Intend: we comfort and support ourselves in difficult times, like a good friend, in order to find more strength and ease to deal with our challenges.
In the practice of the self-compassion break, we apply the three core components in moments of stress: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness.
Attending to ourselves as a friend
In our intention to care for ourselves, we can access our soothing breath, one long exhale which would activate the vagus nerve in the para-sympathetic nervous system to help us to be calmer. We can also use a soothing touch that helps us to feel safe and cared for, such as placing our hands over our heart or some other place that helps us to feel comforted.
Self-compassion uses our body’s mammalian care-giving system to release oxytocin and other feel-good neurochemical. Just like a newborn baby, would feel comforted by his mother’s gentle soothing touch, soft voice and warmth, we can also feel comforted by our own touch and soft inner voice. In this practice, it is important to use gestures, words and phrases that resonate with you, to provide you with a sense of support, comfort and safety. So, feel free to use gestures and change the words for something that is meaningful for you. Experiment and find what works best for you.
So initially you may want to read through the instructions and then try out the practice for yourself or listen to our audio. Here is the link.
Guided self-compassion break practice:
1. Think of a situation currently in your life that is causing you stress. It could be a struggle in your relationship, at work or with your health. Initially choosing a problem that is not too difficult, being an initial practice to build your self-compassion skill gradually. Visualize this situation clearly in your mind’s eye in details: where you are, who said what, when and to whom, what happened and what you fear happening. Feel the tension and discomfort in your body as you are thinking of this situation.
Now, as you become aware of the discomfort, you can say to yourself “this is a moment of suffering”, “ouch, this hurts… this is so stressful.” Acknowledging the moment like you would for a friend. Using your own word to validate your feelings in this situation.
2. Now saying something like: “Suffering is part of life. That is our common humanity. I am not alone in this. Other people feel and react the same… just like me."
3. Now, finding the soothing beath, intentionally breathing out, a long exhale and using a soothing touch, by placing your hands over your heart or using another gesture that brings a friendly sense of comfort to yourself, while saying: “May I be kind to myself” or “May I give myself what I need.” Finding your own phrases of kindness and support. Choosing the words that work for you.
May I accept myself as I am.
May I begin to accept myself as I am.
May I forgive myself.
May I be strong.
May I be safe
May I be patient.
May I see the good in myself and others
May I make peace with this
You can also imagine a friend or loved one, who is having a similar problem, what you would say to them and then say that to yourself. Or imagine what a good friend would say to you.
Throughout the exercise, see if you can get in touch with your intention to attend to yourself who is struggling, in a friendly way, with care and kindness. We all deserve kindness. In the self-compassion break, feel the soothing breath, experience fully the warmth of your hands. Like a good friend that you care about, give yourself the acceptance, the understanding, the compassion that you need.
I have found that the more I do this practice, the stronger and more conscious my intention, to treat myself with the care and the more I feel my own kindness towards myself. It has been life changing for me. I can attend to myself as a true friend, the one I need.
Each time you use the self-compassion break, the situation is going to be different and unique. Each time, you can pause and ask yourself: “What do I need here?” “What do I need to hear while I am facing this difficult situation?” “What would bring me comfort and peace here?” Notice what comes to you in those moments. If nothing comes, that okay, but still resting in your intention to care for yourself and giving yourself time to explore to find ways that are supportive and comforting for you.
The self-compassion break can be summarised into three simple phrases to be used in difficult moments:
“This is a moment of suffering!” (mindfulness)
“Suffering is a part of life.” (common humanity)
“May I give myself the kindness that I need at this moment.” (self-kindness)
The Self-Compassion Break is a beautiful practice which you can do as a short meditation or you can use it, in the moment, in real time, when the going gets tough! This practice helps us to integrate self-compassion to ourselves, in our daily life. It is also a way of attending compassionately to our loved one and friends in their times of struggles. The self-compassion break gives us a way to attend to ourselves and others in a way that is comforting and strengthening to promote better relationships.
Modified and adapted from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer.