Self-compassion is powerful. It promotes inner peace. Self-criticism, the opposite of self-compassion and what most of us are used to practicing, “is an experience of inner conflict,” according to Ali Miller, MFT, a therapist in private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif. Miller specializes in helping adults live more authentic, empowered and connected lives.
When we criticize ourselves, we’re essentially at war with ourselves, she said. “This inner violence is similar to outer violence, in that it hurts, divides, destroys and takes up a lot of energy.” Self-compassion, however, frees up our energy, so we can care for ourselves and others.
Self-compassion also soothes our pain. “When we relate to our pain with self-compassion, we suffer less. And we feel more connected to others who suffer [and] less isolated,” Miller said.
Self-compassion is about approaching ourselves with caring, kind interest and a desire to help ourselves when we’re in emotional or physical pain, she said. It is about acknowledging painful feelings, allowing them and meeting our needs.
Miller shared this example: You feel jealous because your colleague got a raise and you didn’t. If you’re self-critical, you might say, “I shouldn’t feel jealous; good people don’t feel jealous.” However, if you’re self-compassionate, you might say, “Ouch, I’m feeling jealous. This is painful. What can I do to care for myself in this moment of suffering?”
Maybe you know that self-compassion is healthy and important. But sometimes, being self-compassionate is the last thing you feel you can do. Sometimes, you’re too upset with yourself. Sometimes, you unwittingly revert back to what you know: fierce self-criticism.
However, you can ease into self-compassion. You can take small, feasible steps to be kinder to yourself. Below, Miller shared her suggestions.
- Notice your feelings throughout the day. “We get so busy and so consumed by our activities and thoughts that we often don’t even know how we’re feeling,” Miller said. She suggested stopping several times throughout the day, taking a deep breath, and asking ourselves: “How am I doing?” This helps you pay attention to yourself, which is key for self-compassion. As Miller said, “if you’re not paying attention, your habitual way of relating to yourself will operate unconsciously.”
- Notice how you relate to yourself when negative feelings arise. Do you tend to judge or criticize yourself? Do you ignore or deny your feelings? Do you try to talk yourself out of how you’re feeling? Miller especially likes to ask this question: “Am I relating to myself like an abusive parent, like a neglectful parent, or like a loving parent?”
- Put your hand on your heart. When you’re feeling any difficult emotions — you’re afraid, angry, ashamed, sad, stressed out, disappointed, jealous — Miller suggested putting your hand on your heart. “This is a motion of compassion, and a way of reminding yourself that you care about yourself.”
- Identify and respond to your needs. When you’re going through tough times, notice how you’re feeling and ask yourself what you need. Miller suggested asking: “What am I feeling? What am I needing? What can I do to try to meet my needs?” She believes that “emotions are signals to our needs being either met or unmet; if you are experiencing a difficult emotion, it is likely that you have some unmet needs in that moment.” You can practice self-compassion by exploring which needs are unmet, she said. For instance, if you’re feeling angry, it might be because you need to be heard, she said. This list includes universal human needs, which may help you in naming your personal needs.
- Think of yourself as having two parts. Think of yourself as having an inner child and an inner loving adult, said Miller, who created befriendingourselves.com, which includes practices and articles on self-compassion. “When you are in emotional or physical pain, imagine that the part of you that is in pain is a child who is needing loving attention.” Let your inner loving adult care for your inner child. As Miller said, “Our hearts tend to soften towards children more than they do to adults, so this way of thinking can help us embrace a more self-compassionate attitude.”
Self-compassion is a powerful way of relating to ourselves. But sometimes — maybe even often — it feels too hard. Remember that self-compassion isn’t sweeping changes or dramatic gestures.
It can be taking a deep breath when we’re upset. It can be acknowledging that a situation is overwhelming, even that being self-compassionate, in this very moment, is overwhelming.
It can be reminding yourself that every moment, every minute, is an opportunity to choose kindness. And that kindness can be a few words: This hurts. I’m struggling. Or a few questions: What do I need? How can I give this to myself?