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How to Practice Self-Compassion When You’ve Screwed Up

When we make a massive mistake or bad decision, the last thing we want to do is be nice to ourselves.

Instead, we unleash our rage… and anxiety and shame. We bash ourselves. We panic. We minimize the impact (while subconsciously freaking out).

According to therapist and self-compassion expert Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, these are all ways we try to maintain some semblance of control.

Because “when we’ve really screwed up, we feel like the situation is out of control.”

So, we think to ourselves: If only I’d done things the right way; this would’ve never happened, and everything would be fine.

Or, when minimizing the impact of a mistake (or bad decision), we think, it’s not that bad, “even if it is extremely ‘bad,’” said Shinraku, founder of The San Francisco Center for Self-Compassion.

Besides grasping for control, we bash ourselves because one of our basic needs is to feel loved and connected, and our inner critics attempt to protect us from being rejected (and repeating the same behavior), according to Karen Bluth, Ph.D, a mindfulness and self-compassion teacher. Which is why they sound so cold and harsh (“that was so stupid! you shouldn’t have done that!”).

But just because self-compassion doesn’t come naturally doesn’t mean we should be awful to ourselves, even when we’ve screwed up. Because this is precisely when we need our own gentle, understanding support.

Many people dismiss self-compassion because they see it as a copout, as an excuse to behave badly. However, practicing self-compassion includes taking responsibility for your actions, said Bluth, author The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens.

“The question is, how much do we need to beat ourselves up? We probably beat ourselves up too much.”

Below, Shinraku and Bluth shared a range of strategies for practicing self-compassion—from giving a sincere apology to soothing yourself.

Take a self-compassion break. This is particularly helpful to do when you’re feeling bad in the moment. According to Bluth, a self-compassion break incorporates the three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness, which you’ll find below.

  • Recognize that you’re struggling right now, and say to yourself: “This is a moment of struggle,” “This hurts,” or “This is really hard.”
  • Acknowledge that everyone struggles, and say something like: “I’m not alone. Struggling is part of being a human being and alive on this planet.”
  • Say something kind and supportive to yourself and pair it with a soothing gesture. For example, put your hand on your heart and say, “This won’t be forever. You are strong. You’ll get through this.”

Take responsibility. Self-compassion isn’t about minimizing your role in a situation or exaggerating it. Instead, Shinraku said, mindfully identify the facts of the situation (without focusing on “your feelings or hopes about what is happening”). Consider what you can do and/or say to “atone for your actions.”

If you’re going to apologize, make sure it’s “true, necessary, and kind,” and that it focuses on your impact on the other person (versus on how awful and horrible you are), Shinraku said.

In short, don’t make it about yourself (even though that’s hard!). For example, according to Shinraku, avoid saying: “You must hate me! I’m the worst! I can’t believe how clueless and selfish I was in making you wait 45 minutes. I just got so caught up in re-organizing my closet that I lost track of time.”

Instead, here’s a kind, genuine apology: “I’m sorry that I’m so late and that I didn’t let you know what was happening. I care about you and our friendship and I want to talk about how this impacted you.”

Soften, soothe, allow. This self-compassion technique helps you process difficult emotions, such as being angry with yourself. According to Bluth, recognize what you’re feeling; name it (e.g., “I’m feeling anger”); and find where you’re experiencing it in your body (e.g., tension in your neck).

Then focus on soothing that place. For example, you might imagine a warm wash cloth, she said. Finally, allow yourself to experience this emotion without resisting it, judging it (or yourself), and wanting it to disappear.

Try supportive touch. One way we comfort others is by giving them a hug, patting them on the back, or putting our arm around them, Bluth said. Such kind gestures trigger the release of oxytocin, which can decrease heart rate and the stress hormone cortisol. We can do the same for ourselves. Bluth suggested putting both hands over your heart, stroking your cheek, giving yourself a hug, or holding one hand in the other on your lap.

Forgive yourself. A helpful tool for self-forgiveness is journaling. Because it’s easy to veer off into self-blame, Shinraku suggested using the principles of nonviolent communication.

Begin by jotting down the facts surrounding the situation. Second, name the emotions you’re experiencing. Third, reflect on the needs you’ve had or have in this situation. Lastly, consider if there’s a way to meet these needs right now. “For example, if you discover that you have a need to be loved, is there a way that you can remind yourself that you are loved?” Shinraku said.

If guilt or shame still arise, “pause and remind yourself that it’s normal to make mistakes and that making mistakes does not mean that you are a ‘bad’ person. It means that you are human.”

Because practicing self-compassion on your own can be tough, Bluth suggested taking a mindful self-compassion class.

How to Practice Self-Compassion When You’ve Screwed Up

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2020). How to Practice Self-Compassion When You’ve Screwed Up. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jan 2020 (Originally: 4 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.