Many of the people we see in therapy are inundated with derisive, attacking, and at times, verbally abusive self-talk. So subtle and pervasive is the way that we deal with ourselves, that it is often invisible and nearly impossible to observe. Examining your relationship with yourself is almost like trying to see your eyeball with your own eye. As a psychologist, I have found that helping people to adjust this aspect of their inner life is extremely difficult and profoundly effective in moving towards greater wellbeing in life.
Many contemporary theories of therapy incorporate self-acceptance as integral to making positive improvements in life. The wisdom traditions also emphasize the importance of self-acceptance. In Buddhism, mindfulness and awareness practices cultivate an openness and warmth to ourselves in a nonjudgemental way. It is important to note that acceptance and self-compassion is not the same as condoning destructive behaviors towards ourselves or others. Rather, it means acknowledging and allowing for our whole self to be present, including our flaws and limitations. In fact, without first accepting ourselves as we are, we cannot begin to move forward and live in line with our true values. Often, the practice of compassion is one that we are more than willing to extend to those friends and family members that we love; however, we struggle to offer that same generosity to ourselves.
There is evidence to suggest that self-compassion actually improves one’s motivation to make positive changes (Breines, & Chen, 2012). In one study, self-compassion exercises led to improved mood and decreased depression in participants (Shapira & Mongrain, 2010). Finally, self-compassion can reduce the negative emotional and cognitive impacts of difficult experiences as self-companionate people may be more able to acknowledge their own role in negative events (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen & Hancock, 2007). Learning how to be kind to oneself is difficult at first, but the rewards are far-reaching. Explore the exercises below to begin to learn to be your own best friend.
Self Compassion practices to try:
1.) Physical gesture: This can be incredibly powerful as there is something about touch that transcends verbal ways of communicating. Think of a supportive touch that you might use with a close friend, a hand on the shoulder, arms gently hugging, or placing your hand over your heart. Feel the physical sensations that you experience as you offer yourself these same gestures. Notice the sensations where you are touching your body, the sensations of your face and behind your eyes. Using this touch can be very helpful during times of stress, sadness or anxiety.
2.) Letter to Yourself: This evocative exercise is designed to help you nurture and accept yourself, just as you are, with all of your flaws. In the first part of the letter, you are to write about an aspect of yourself that you are ashamed of or that makes you feel inadequate. Describe in detail how it makes you feel, being as honest as possible. Next, express compassion and acceptance towards this aspect of yourself. It might help to think about how you might respond to someone you care deeply about. Consider all of the factors that play a role in the development of this aspect of yourself that you don’t like – unbringing, genes, opportunities, etc. In the letter, explore constructive changes you can make that would bring you greater fulfillment, happiness, and health. The most important aspect of this letter is to avoid judging or criticizing yourself. Save the letter in a special place and come back to read, especially if you are feeling troubled about the aspect of yourself that you’ve written about.
3.) Lovingkindness or Metta meditation: This ancient meditation practice is designed to develop the mental habit of altruistic love. It has been described as a meditation practice that systematically develops the quality of loving acceptance. Typically, the practice includes a series of loving phrases targeted toward 1.) someone you love dearly, 2.) a neutral person, 3.) a hostile person, and 4.) yourself.
Click here for a link to a free guided meditations focused on self-compassion.
Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.
Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887-904.
Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28-44.
Shapira, L. B., & Mongrain, M. (2010). The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 377-389.