There is more abundant and accessible stress reduction available to us if we direct our attention away from the “big ticket” relaxation events (the cruises, spas, and anniversary indulgences) and become curious about quieter, subtler forms of relaxation. Of course, we think of the big ticket items because we tend to aggregate all of the stresses in our lives and then look for a comparably sized stress reliever.

Self-compassion is a powerful tool for reducing stress before it becomes “cruise-sized” because it can be applied liberally and frequently, and even preemptively before built up stress takes on epic proportions. And similar to the way that eating small meals throughout the day is more effective for staying energized and full than eating two or three large meals, self-compassion is a more effective long-term way of achieving your stress management and wellness goals.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is the act of having empathy for oneself. Empathy is showing care, concern, and nonjudgmental acceptance of feelings as they arise without declaring them “right” or “wrong”. Self-compassion is often tricky in families or cultures that emphasize self-discipline and “no excuses” mentalities because in extreme, these perspectives often view self-compassion as an undesirable quality synonymous with being lazy, self-pitying, or weak.

The truth is that self-compassion has nothing to do with a pity party or weakness, and everything to do with acknowledging the reality of how we are feeling so that we can cope with it more effectively and constructively. Pretending that we aren’t feeling sad or stressed so that we don’t appear “weak” is like pretending not to have a flat tire. You can push through temporarily in some cases, but the longer you go without acknowledging it the more likely you are to have a bigger challenge. Acknowledgement and acceptance of unwanted feelings — which are mental acts — are often unfairly translated in our culture to the physical activity of moping. But they are not at all necessarily connected. Sure, wallowing in bad feelings often comes before the stagnation of moping, but not necessarily.

Think about the example of paying your taxes. For most of us, we’re unhappy about it and very clear that we’re unhappy about it, but we still do it. Another example is new parents who are facing dirty diapers in the middle of the night. New parents are well aware that they are sleep deprived and miserable when they have to get up in the middle of the night and change a dirty diaper for the umpteenth time. And they still do it without pause. We’re actually pretty good at accepting “negative” feelings and continuing to do what we need to do anyway. We just don’t remember that we’re good at it if the IRS isn’t breathing down our necks.

How do you use Self-Compassion to reduce stress?

At the end of the day, we can’t fool ourselves about how we’re feeling any more than a runner with a blister on the bottom of his foot. And if a runner with a blister on the bottom of his foot wants to finish the race, he needs to stop, examine it, put some ointment on, and find a bandage or cushion. That’s self-compassion … acknowledging what’s going on and addressing what you need accordingly. Otherwise, the runner will just be in more pain and even less able to run further on down the road … more stressful, not less. The same is true of any individual facing emotional or mental stress or pain. Taking care of our needs requires us to acknowledge what those needs are, and that means being willing to have self-compassion and accept our feelings so that we can reach out, find, and utilize the tools we need.

Once we accept and acknowledge our feelings, we can get a much more effective handle on addressing them. Otherwise, we’re running blind, so to speak, and highly likely to hit a wall. Self-compassion is a nonjudgmental curiosity about and warm acceptance of how we are doing, with the intention of supporting ourselves accordingly through those feelings, just as we would someone else. It enables us to reduce our stress by more effectively identifying and therefore addressing our needs.