Self-compassion is an inner resource that helps you manage anxiety with more ease.
You’re late for work — again. Your partner of 10 years leaves you. You find out you have a major health condition.
Whether it comes from a perceived character flaw, painful rejection, or big life changing event, anxiety is part of the human experience. But when it happens, we can easily feel like we’re inherently flawed or that we’re the only ones experiencing hardship.
How can we handle these intense feelings of anxiety while also being kind to ourselves?
Self-compassion involves giving yourself the same kindness and care you would give to a friend or family member experiencing a hardship. This practice can be applied in all anxiety-inducing life situations, including any perceived failures, slights, and inadequacies.
Self-compassion is especially important when we feel out of control, such as if you have a major health condition or experience a life change.
Research from 2021 found that higher self-compassion in people with cancer is significantly tied to lower levels of anxiety, depression, distress, and body-focused distress, as well as to higher resilience and treatment adherence.
Kristin Neff, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts and authors on self-compassion. She was the first to define and measure self-compassion nearly 20 years ago.
Neff outlines in her research that self-compassion has three parts:
- self-kindness vs. self-judgment
- a sense of common humanity vs. isolation
- mindfulness vs. overidentification
The first component of self-compassion is self-kindness. Self-kindness involves being gentle and understanding with yourself, as you would a good friend.
It is when you desire to alleviate your own feelings of hardship with kindness and concern. You also work to develop the awareness that you’re inherently worthy of care.
People with self-kindness do the following:
- When life is stressful, they stop to soothe and comfort themselves, rather than immediately trying to control or fix the issue.
- They neither avoid their pain nor engage in self-criticism when things go wrong.
- When they observe a personal character flaw, the tone of the language they use toward themselves is accepting and supportive of change. For example, they might say “I should work on becoming more disciplined in my studies,” rather than “I can’t believe I didn’t study longer for this test. I’m so lazy and stupid!”
The second component of self-compassion is the idea of common humanity.
This is the understanding that hardship is part of being human and that we’re not alone in our experiences of weaknesses, failures, and mistakes.
According to Neff, when things don’t go our way, many of us tend to feel alone in our pain, as if we are the only person going through hardship.
This can often mean that we feel shame around our feelings of pain or our failures, which can lead to heightened anxiety. Embracing our common humanity can help reduce the shame we may experience because it helps us remember that our setbacks are not necessarily linked to disconnection and isolation.
The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness.
Mindfulness involves keeping an open, curious, nonjudgmental state of mind, in which you observe your thoughts and feelings as they are, without either ruminating on or suppressing them.
This practice allows you to experience your negative thoughts and emotions with greater compassion and clarity. In other words, you acknowledge and experience each of your emotions without letting them take over you.
According to Neff, if we’re able to accept that a little bit of anxiety in our life is inevitable — and remain uncritical when we do feel anxious — we can manage our anxiety with greater ease.
There are several ways to apply self-compassion when you’re anxious. Here are a few suggestions to get started.
Write yourself an encouraging letter
If you’re finding yourself feeling anxious, you can write out a loving letter to yourself. You may want to tell yourself all the things you appreciate about yourself. You can encourage yourself with sincere loving-kindness as you would a dear friend.
You could also journal each day about the things you did well and what you are proud of yourself for. Journaling can be a safe space to explore:
- who you are
- what you like about yourself
- what you’re feeling
- where you want to focus your energy
Mindfulness meditation stems from Buddhist teachings and is one of the most well-researched types of meditation.
To practice mindfulness meditation, direct your attention to your breath and stay in the present moment. As thoughts pop into your mind, notice them without judgment and let them pass by like a cloud.
Write out your self-criticism
“How could you be so dumb?” “You’re just lazy and worthless.”
Would you ever say these things to someone you love? Hopefully not! But how often do we say these things to ourselves?
Many of us engage in negative self-talk.
When this happens, you can try writing out your words on a sheet of paper. This can help you look at these words objectively and realize that you don’t deserve this kind of treatment.
Engage in positive affirmations
Create and regularly say positive affirmations to help you handle anxiety.
Here are a few examples:
- I’m a strong, loving person.
- I will use this obstacle as a way to learn and develop myself.
- I’m completely capable of changing how I feel about this situation.
- My self-worth is inherent (from within), not based on outside circumstances.
Try a releasing statement
You can also try releasing statements as a way to let go of unwanted thoughts and embrace the emotions you are feeling.
Releasing statements are sentences you say when you notice you are speaking unkindly to yourself and want to let those thoughts go.
For instance, if you are feeling anxious in a social setting and begin telling yourself how unlikable or bad at socializing you are, you might try a releasing statement instead. You could say to yourself, “It’s OK that I feel anxious in this moment. It will pass.”
The point of a releasing statement is to free yourself from a certain feeling or thought. You accept that feeling or thought for what it is, then move on.
You may not be able to stop feeling anxious right away, but you can manage how much you let the feeling or thought upset or discourage you.
Self-compassion is an inner resource that allows you to respond to hardship and anxiety with kind-hearted action.
A person with self-compassion acknowledges their anxiety and offers kindness and understanding to themselves. Rather than judging themselves harshly for their mistakes or perceived shortcomings, they understand that pain is part of the human experience and that they’re not alone.
Although it takes practice, anyone can cultivate more self-compassion in their lives to help reduce anxiety. You can either try at-home self-compassion practices, such as practicing mindfulness or engaging in positive affirmations, or you can begin by speaking with a mental health professional.