I’m going to suggest one that you may not have thought of — self-compassion. Of all of the skills, habits, and practices I’ve worked on with clients over the years, it’s one I’ve seen have particularly profound effects, often in surprising ways.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is the practice of nudging aside our self-critical thoughts and replacing them with thoughts that are more understanding — and ultimately much more helpful. It’s a way of treating ourselves that not only can make us feel a whole lot better, but can actually help us to more successfully pursue a wide variety of practical goals as well.
To understand what self-compassion is, it can help to compare it to something most of us are more familiar with: self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a matter of how we think about ourselves. Self-compassion is about how we treat ourselves. They’re both important; they’re just two different things. Self-compassion isn’t about convincing ourselves that we are good enough; it’s about treating ourselves with the understanding and kindness we need in order to thrive.
How does it help?
A regular practice of self-compassion not only makes us feel better; it can help us to do better. Getting in the habit of treating ourselves with compassion can lead us to be less afraid of failure and more willing to take risks in pursuit of our goals, because we come to expect that we will meet our struggles, imperfections, and failures with the balm of self-compassion rather than the sting of self-criticism.
Here are just a few of the documented benefits of practicing self-compassion:
- Decrease in anxiety and depression
- Increase in emotional and physical well-being
- Greater sense of self-worth and optimism
And in case you’re worried that self-compassion will leave you happily eating Doritos in front of the TV all day while your bills go unpaid, research also makes it clear that self-compassion actually enhances our lives in practical ways as well, including:
- Greater personal responsibility
- Decrease in procrastination
- Greater progress toward goals
So how do we do it?
For the most part, learning to practice self-compassion is pretty simple. But there is one tricky part — timing. Because it’s about nudging aside self-critical thoughts in favor of more understanding and helpful ones, we need to remember to practice it at those very times we usually criticize ourselves — when we try and fail, when we fall short, when we don’t like what we see in the mirror.
Of course, when we’re indulging in self-criticism, our minds are usually fully occupied with beating ourselves up, so it can be hard to remember just how to do otherwise. So I’ve developed an easy way to remember and take the key steps of practicing self-compassion — just when we need it most. I call it C.A.R.E: Catch, Acknowledge, Request, Encourage.
Here’s how to practice C.A.R.E.
Notice when you’re engaging in self-criticism.
I knew this company was in trouble two years ago, but I stayed anyway, and now I’m out of a job. It’s my own fault for having been too scared to leave.
I skipped my exercise class again. I’m so lazy, it’s no wonder I can’t lose weight.
It’s worth it to take a moment when you’re calm (now, for example) to think of some of the triggers that tend to take you down the path of self-criticism. Note a few of them to make it easier to remember to replace self-criticism with C.A.R.E. — right when the process begins.
Recognize the pain that the self-criticism is causing. See if there’s a physical sensation associated with the emotional sting. Try not to resist it; just allow it and send it compassion.
It hurts when I talk to myself like that. I can feel it here in my chest. That’s where I’ll send compassionate thoughts.
When we feel bad, we really do need to acknowledge and soothe the pain before we’re able to feel better. And locating a physical manifestation of the feeling can help us to do just that.
Speak gently to your self-critic and ask it to stop the criticism.
I know you’re trying to help, but you’re not actually helping, and you are causing me unnecessary pain. Please stop being so self-critical.
Yes, I know it’s sort of hard to picture saying this to yourself, but it really is an important step. After all, our inner critics talk to us all the time; we can talk to them, too. But why do we need to speak to them gently? Well, it turns out that arguing with our inner critics actually tends to reinforce their critical messages. And in a sense they are trying to help, however misguided their approach may be. So give it a try; just tell your inner critic you appreciate the effort but it isn’t helping, so please let it go.
Replace the critical self-talk with supportive self-talk, such as a wise and caring friend might offer.
Okay, so sticking with the company didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up on my career. What can I do today to find a new way to use my skills?
I’ve got a lot going on, and I didn’t make the exercise class. But I do want to feel good in my body, and I still deserve to. What can I do today to take care of my body?
The habit of self-criticism often leads us to simply abandon our goals in pain and frustration. But self-compassion gives us the opportunity to soothe our pain and keep on track toward our goals by reminding us that we still deserve to create the kinds of lives we really want to live, and encouraging us — imperfections and all — to keep moving in the direction we want to go.
Want to learn more about Self-Compassion? The definitive book on the subject is Self-Compassion, by Kristen Neff, the pioneer into academic research in this area. It is a wonderful book.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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