Being kind to yourself may not come easy — but research shows that practicing self-compassion has many benefits for your mental health.
If you tend to judge yourself harshly, criticize your thoughts and actions, or blame yourself for small mistakes, know that you’re not alone. Harmful self-talk is second nature for many people and it can have a major toll on your self-worth.
“It can be difficult to have self-compassion — even when you’re compassionate to others — because we tend to have a higher expectation of ourselves,” says Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist based in Gilbert and Phoenix, Arizona.
Research by Kristin Neff, PhD — a leading expert in self-compassion — has shown that people who practice being kinder to themselves are less likely to be anxious, stressed, and depressed. They’re also more likely to be happy and optimistic about the future.
Self-compassion means responding to yourself with understanding and kindness when you make a mistake, rather than judging yourself. It means extending to yourself the same kindness and grace you would offer others.
Having compassion for yourself is no different from having compassion for others, writes Dr. Neff.
“Self-compassion […] is about recognizing that we are doing the best we can with what we know and what we have, and demonstrating patience and understanding for that,” says Fedrick.
There are many ways to practice self-compassion, such as through:
- positive self-talk
- self-compassion meditation
- challenging your inner critic
Below, we look at some of the key benefits you can gain from self-compassion.
On a physiological level, self-compassion may help you calm your nervous system to reduce anxiety and stress.
You may have noticed that kind words or supportive touch from a friend can soothe you when you’re feeling activated. Offering warm feelings of care to yourself may have a similar effect.
Dr. Neff writes that, like receiving compassion from others, self-compassion can trigger the release of oxytocin. This chemical increases feelings of trust, safety, and calm.
On the other hand, self-criticism can feel like a threat, leading the body to engage in fight, flight, or freeze responses. Turning toward compassion instead of judgment may help soothe these responses.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of relying on others to improve your self-esteem — but offering yourself kind words can give you a powerful boost too.
“Self-compassion is often directly tied to positive self-talk and being able to give ourselves grace and understanding for human mistakes,” says Fedrick.
It helps to step back and look at your mistakes as something external to you instead of a reflection of who you are. It’s easier to view yourself more positively from that perspective.
When you catch yourself thinking “I am a failure,” consider reframing the thought in a more compassionate way, such as, “I made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. This one situation does not define me.”
When mistakes don’t feel as overwhelming and you’re spending less time being self-critical, you have more time to enjoy your life, says Fedrick.
“When we can view mistakes and setbacks as areas of growth and learning opportunities, instead of as a negative reflection of our character, we often feel much better about our lives overall,” she adds.
Less time spent picking apart your flaws and dwelling on mistakes ultimately means more time for the things you love to do and the people you love to spend time with.
“Self-compassion often leads to more fulfilling relationships because the kinder and more patient we are with ourselves, ultimately the kinder and more patient we can be with others,” says Fedrick.
With the benefits that come with self-compassion — like improved life satisfaction, self-esteem, and self-awareness — you can show up in your relationships with greater joy and optimism. You may find that being more at ease with yourself improves your relationships with others, too.
Constant self-criticism and harmful self-talk can have a real negative effect on your mental health, shares Fedrick.
“When we are harsh or critical of ourselves, this can send us into something called a “threat state” in which the emotional center of our brain becomes activated, and we go into a fight-or-flight response.” Being in this state constantly can trigger anxiety and depression symptoms.
“Increasing the ability to instead demonstrate compassion toward our mistakes and struggles helps to keep us out of a threat state, which will ultimately assist with decreasing certain mental health concerns,” says Fedrick.
“Taking risks means there is always the potential of disappointment or even failure, which can be scary […], especially for someone who demonstrates high levels of self-judgment,” says Fedrick.
When you’re less afraid of failure, it becomes easier to take leaps into the unknown. Having self-compassion and increased self-awareness can make it easier to accept and understand the possibility of setbacks and letdowns, she adds.
Being kinder to yourself when mistakes happen makes the possibility of those errors a lot easier to swallow.
Having grace and compassion for yourself can make you feel less vulnerable and more capable of handling things like failure or being wrong.
“Often, people with closed mindsets struggle with considering other perspectives and worldviews because they fear that if their perspective is deemed as “wrong,” this is a reflection of them being “wrong” as a person,” says Fedrick.
She adds that when you have compassion for yourself, you’re likely to have more confidence to explore and engage with things that challenge your worldview.
In theory, it sounds straightforward to simply be kinder to yourself — but in reality, it can take time and patience.
“It is important to understand that if you are not used to practicing self-compassion, it will likely feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. That is okay. You are learning something new,” Fedrick says.
Self-compassion can be challenging for those who have experienced trauma. Beginning a journey of self-compassion can activate big emotions, especially if you have a history of being criticized or dismissed early in life.
If you find self-compassion activating or challenging, it may help to help to work with a therapist so you can go on this self-care journey in a safe, supported way.
Avoiding critical or judgmental people can be helpful when you’re trying to work on being more self-compassionate.
Dr. Neff’s website offers a list of free exercises to help you get started. They include:
- Guided meditations: These meditations help you structure your self-compassion practice. They include loving-kindness meditation, body scan meditations, and breathing practices.
- Journaling: Keeping a journal can help you process difficult events through a lens of self-compassion. A daily journal practice can help you make mindfulness and self-kindness a part of your routine.
- Supportive touch: Physical touch, such as placing your hand on your heart, can calm the nervous system and soothe unpleasant emotions.
When you notice harmful thoughts arise, Fedrick shares some positive affirmations that you can use to flip the script on your negative thinking:
- “I’m human, and humans make mistakes.”
- “I messed up, and that’s okay.”
- “I’m doing the best I can.”
If you’re looking for additional resources on self-compassion, Fedrick recommends checking out the following:
- Self Compassion, the website of Dr. Neff, offers information, resources, and tips for practicing.
- “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself” by Dr. Neff provides a deep dive into self-compassion.
- “The Compassionate Mind Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Developing Your Compassionate Self” by Dr. Chris Irons and Dr. Elaine Beaumont offers a workbook to help you get started.
Self-compassion can be difficult, especially if you’re used to talking down to yourself. Over time, you may find that being kinder to yourself has many benefits, helping you feel better about yourself, your situation, and your relationships.
If you’re having difficulty quieting your inner critic you may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional who can guide you in self-reflection. They can also help you identify why you might be particularly critical of yourself in certain areas of your life.
Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.