Self-compassion is an essential part of “wellness, psychologically, relationally, physically and even spiritually,” said Joyce Marter, LCPC, a therapist and owner of Urban Balance, a counseling practice in the Chicago area.
It also helps us confront hardships, and make beneficial changes in our lives. Self-compassion “allows us to engage our brain and body’s basic soothing system,” said Dennis Tirch, Ph.D, a psychologist and director of The Center for Mindfulness and Compassion Focused Therapy.
By supporting ourselves, we create “a secure base” to deal with challenges. “As a result, cultivating self-compassion can help us to have the motivation and the courage to engage in behavioral changes, leading us to live bigger lives, and move towards what matters to us.”
Unfortunately, many people — especially those with mental illness — can sometimes be particularly hard on themselves.
Tirch has found that clients who’ve had painful or critical relationships in their early lives have a tougher time supporting and being kind to themselves.
They also might “experience an inner voice that evokes shame or a sense of worthlessness.”
The stigma surrounding mental illness only feeds the inner critic. Individuals with mental illness often experience feelings of shame and inadequacy and believe their illness is somehow their fault, Marter said.
They may internalize the negative (and, unfortunately, common) myths about mental illness. As Marter said, “It’s hard to be self-compassionate when living in a culture that is not always informed or compassionate about mental illness.”
So how can you be kinder to yourself if it doesn’t exactly feel natural or automatic? You can learn.
“Fortunately, self-compassion can be trained and that process can be liberating,” said Tirch, also author The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. “Training the mind in compassion allows [people] to develop a supportive, helpful and empowering way of relating to themselves.”
Tirch helps his clients “use imagery, meditation, behavior change and thought exercises to cultivate their compassionate minds.” Here are several self-compassionate strategies to start you off.
1. Listen to kindness.
Tirch’s website offers excellent audio practices, which focus on meditation and imagery, to help people become more self-compassionate. Find the practices that resonate with you, and make them a habit.
Christopher Germer, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatment, has many free meditations on his website. You’ll also find meditations on Kristin Neff’s website. She’s the author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind and a self-compassion researcher.
(Neff shared her tips for self-compassion in this piece.)
2. Treat yourself like a loved one.
Marter suggested readers treat themselves like they would their child, best friend or someone else they love deeply (and unconditionally). In other words, “if you are saying things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to somebody else, you need to turn down the volume on your inner critic.”
3. See a therapist.
If you’re not already working with a therapist, seek professional help. Every mental illness is treatable. A mental health professional can help you cope effectively with your illness and learn to be more self-compassionate. Marter helps her clients zero in on their inner critic and quiet those self-destructive thoughts.
“Eventually, clients report hearing my voice throughout their day and then begin to internalize a more compassionate and positive inner dialogue.” She also helps them overcome their past, practice acceptance and stay in the present moment.
4. Get support from a 12-step program.
Marter works with many clients who are in recovery from substance or alcohol abuse. “They carry a tremendous amount of shame and self-blame around their addiction.” Twelve-step programs, she said, are helpful in “working towards acceptance, forgiveness and self-compassion.”
5. Remember that mental illness is an illness.
If you have a mental illness, you might think it’s your fault, and you don’t deserve compassion. Or, if you’re struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, ADHD or any other illness that sinks your sense of self (and supplies your inner critic), you might think you don’t deserve much of anything.
Marter regularly reminds her clients that mental illness has a “biomedical component.” It is not the result of poor choices, personality flaws or some weakness on your part. Thinking mental illness is your fault is like believing you’re to blame for having asthma, diabetes or cancer. The empowering part is that you can seek professional help and cultivate healthy habits. But your illness is not your fault.
If you have a low sense of self, it may be a symptom of your mental illness. This is another concern that therapy can help with.
6. Remember that everyone struggles.
Comparing yourself to others can fuel feelings of inadequacy, Marter said. But remember that everyone has challenges. Don’t compare your insides to another person’s outsides, she said.
“I believe we all have mental health issues at various points in our lives, whether it be anxiety, depression, self-esteem problems or difficulty managing stress. I believe this is a part of the human condition and that mental health issues are a normal response to a person’s nature and nurture.”
Self-compassion might not seem natural to you right now. Fortunately, it’s a skill you can practice. And with more and more practice, you can extend more and more kindness and support your way.