1. The kindness we would show a friend is directed toward ourselves.
2. A recognition that pain and suffering is part of life — it’s something every human being goes through.
Here are the benefits I have gained from self-compassion:
- Far less criticism of my husband (phew!).
- More natural and spontaneous kindness, generosity and forgiveness toward myself and others.
- A lighter, more fun engagement with life.
- Greater curiosity about what arises and less desire to push negative feelings aside.
- Greater self acceptance — in good times and bad — and an honesty about my weaknesses that does not threaten my well-being.
- Better sleep.
- Greater calm and less feelings of stress.
- More productive and sensitive coping with difficulties as they arise.
- Greater optimism about the future.
- Lower anxiety, irritation, frustration and rumination.
- A resilience born out of grounded confidence rather than sheer force of determination.
- Greater happiness and well-being.
- A flexible approach to achieving my goals that is more open and creative.
- More wholehearted connection to others in my life.
This translates into far kinder, more accepting, flexible and enjoyable mothering. My children gain as much as I do.
When I became a mom I used to joke to friends that I had gone into the “mommy cave” and wasn’t ready to come out. I wanted to soak up my baby and forget about the rest of the world. But this also played to my perfectionist tendencies and put enormous pressure on my parenting.
I wanted to be the best mother I could be. I was familiar with the concept of “good enough” parenting — but I wanted to be better than that. Thank goodness I have softened into enjoying my mothering role since the “mommy cave” days.
I used to think having high standards and intense commitment to what I did was an admirable quality. I know it fueled success in the workplace. I felt passion, dedication and a love of mothering. Yet I lacked the open-hearted, gentle and nonjudgmental lightness that self-compassion has brought, and the fun. I loved my girls, and enjoyed the special moments (captured on video of course).
But there was no off switch. As early as day three or four in hospital when my daughter was born, the midwife had to prise her out of my hands to give me a chance to sleep. I remember her saying I would be no use to my daughter if I didn’t get some rest.
I was convinced that she was overreacting. I was fine to keep feeding and comforting my baby through the night. Only in hindsight, once I had a few hours restorative sleep could I recognize the intensity of my behavior. My field of vision had narrowed and I had lost the perspective I needed to make wiser and more flexible choices for myself and for my child.
The performance orientation of the work world doesn’t translate well into mothering. I would not have identified myself as being particularly self-critical (a hallmark of low self-compassion). But there was an unforgiving determination to be the best I could be that dispassionately uncovered mistakes and gaps between the ideal and the reality of my mothering.
Once at home, a constant analysis and commentary accompanied me: “in the moment” and when my daughter was sleeping. Although the house was reasonably clean and tidy, it wasn’t domestic “busyness” that occupied her sleep times. It was a performance review with new action steps to ensure my child’s well being.
My lucky husband was also part of my improvement plans. He often received unsolicited feedback about how to shift his interactions to be more aligned to her developmental priorities and my latest research. Boy, is he glad I discovered self-compassion.
Before practicing self-compassion, my performance focus was in overdrive and I didn’t prioritize self care and soothing at all. How stoic. I thought this was resilience, but it lacked the flexibility self-compassion brings. It was far more controlling, hard, and prone to exhaustion and eruptions. My go-to response to suffering was to regroup, research options and try harder.
Loving my children opened the door to becoming kinder toward myself. Over years of oiling the stiff joints in my mothering, it has softened like leather in the warmth of the sun. It is still strong, but more dynamic, gentle and smooth. I am happier and more lighthearted than I have ever been as a mother. I feel optimistic about our future but spend far more time enjoying the present.
Kristin Neff’s self-compassion break is second nature now, and I can do it in the moment many times a day or dedicate a longer sitting time to it as well. It’s not just for mothers — why not give it a try? Here are the steps to follow:
When I notice that I’m feeling any stress or discomfort, I get curious and find the discomfort in my body where I feel it the most. Then I say to myself: (change the words to suit you)
- This hurts. This is a moment of suffering.
- Suffering is a part of life. Other moms feel this. I’m not alone in this!
Then I put my hand over my heart, or wherever it feels soothing, feeling the warmth and gentle touch of my hand. This doesn’t always feel natural to me, but I sense that it works so I do it anyway. Then I say to myself:
May I give myself the kindness I need right now.
This also felt a little strange at first so I experimented with other phrases:
- May I accept myself as I am.
- May I give myself the compassion that I need.
- May I learn to accept myself as I am.
- May I forgive myself.
- May I be strong.
- May I be safe.
If you’re having trouble finding the right language, sometimes it helps to imagine what you might say to a dear friend struggling with that same difficulty. With practice, you can trigger the sentiment without using words.