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Self-Compassion 4: Self-Kindness

In week 1 of this series, we defined self-compassion. In weeks 2 and 3, we looked at the first two components: mindfulness and common humanity. Today, we'll talk about nurturing an attitude of self-kindness.

Remember back to week 1, when you had a terrible day at work?

You bombed a presentation and your cubicle neighbor was mean to you and the boi from accounting that you've been flirting with has just starting dating the receptionist. You think about going to the gym to work off some stress, but instead you go home to binge Stranger Things and also ice cream. You eat an entire carton of Double Chocolate Delight and drink half a bottle of wine. And you never had dinner.

Let’s say that instead of heading home to binge, you’ve caught yourself in a shame-spiral on the train-ride home. You hear yourself saying Ugh, if you were less of an awkward weirdo, you would’ve done better at that presentation! And Max would be taking you to that hipster bar, instead of Becca the receptionist. Who’s the worst. But you must be worse than her, or they’d be into you.... You’ve been practicing mindfulness and common humanity for a few weeks, so you slip into the practice. You sit back, do your 5-minute body scan, and realize that your shoulders, jaw, and neck are tight. You feel anxious and sad. You remind yourself that other people feel awkward around the folks they like or in front of large groups of people. And it's totally normal to feel upset when something you wanted doesn't work out...

OK, you've been mindful and you've remembered that you're part of a common humanity. Now what?

Now is the time for self-kindness. Imagine a benevolent authority figure — a parent or grandparent, a kindergarten teacher or your favorite college professor, a boss or mentor — someone who can recognize your shortcomings and who STILL loves and respects you. Do you have that person in your head? Great, now speak to yourself as if you were speaking from that person's mouth. If you need to, pretend you're a child who needs to be comforted. Who's going to tell a child that they're a loser? (Not you, I hope.)

If we return to the case above, you might say,'s totally normal to feel upset when something you wanted doesn't work out. It sucks. It’s hard and it makes sense that you’re unhappy. You can’t control who Max likes. All you can control is your own behavior. So you’re going to have to professional at work, whether or not you’re feeling jealous. And that presentation might not have been as bad as you think. Your boss smiled at you at the end, so you probably did at least an adequate job. It sounds like you could use some practice with public speaking, though, to become more confident. Maybe you could check out one of those Toastmaster groups.

That was a little long, but you get the gist. Instead of focusing on the negatives or getting down on yourself, use self-kindness to honestly evaluate your situation (notice I said "your situation" and not "yourself" — you are not your mistakes), to come up with solutions, and to encourage yourself to move forward.

Why should you do this? Isn't it better to recognize and focus on your shortcomings? Isn't self-criticism just a way to hold yourself to the highest standard? How else will you improve?

According to Precision Nutrition:

Compared to self-criticizers, people who are more self-compassionate:

  • perform better and rarely “choke” under pressure; they also feel more personally competent

  • are more resilient and able to bounce back faster from setbacks

  • feel less depressed and/or anxious

  • have better relationships, feel more secure in their interpersonal life, and get along with people more effectively

  • are more emotionally intelligent and less egocentric

  • are more satisfied with life

  • are better able to take risks and be open to new experiences; they aren’t afraid of “failure”

  • learn, grow, and develop more effectively

  • are better at providing social support (say, to their clients)

  • are psychologically healthier overall

In her short video about self-kindness, Dr. Kristin Neff says, “When you’re very self-critical, you often don’t admit the truth about yourself because it’s too painful. It’s hard to actually admit areas where you need to grow and change.” But if you practice self-kindness, you “can acknowledge your shortcomings...then you’re much more likely to see yourself clearly,” which is how you grow. It sounds like she’s saying that when you are overly critical, when you say things to yourself like you’re too fat to be loved or you’re too stupid to get a good job, you can’t help but become a bit defensive. Furthermore, when you blow your negative qualities out of proportion and turn yourself into “that guy,” then what’s the point of trying to make changes? You can’t fix ugly, says Tom in the first episode of the Queer Eye reboot. If you can’t possibly fix what you “are” then why bother trying to be better? (I’ll talk more about fixed- versus growth-mindsets in a future post.)

One last note, Neff says to incorporate comforting gestures like stroking or hugging to release oxytocin, a hormone released by your body to soothe (and to help create bonds). A few years ago, after witnessing a traumatic accident, I found myself stroking my thorax (the upper chest) whenever I felt stressed out. Though I didn’t know about self-compassion or self-kindness at the time, I think that subconsciously I knew that this loving gesture was helping my anxiety. So, next time you catch yourself beating yourself up, try using the language of self-kindness and also the touch. And keep doing your body-scan practice. It’s hard to know when you need some self-compassion if you don’t pay any attention to how you’re feeling.

Thanks again to Eduardo Espada for his amazing illustrations!

Want a coach who practices self-compassion and encourages you to do the same? Check out my online fitness and nutrition services!

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