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What If You Treated Yourself Like Someone You Love?

Noémie Yacola
Noémie Yacola

The mindful self-compassion approach is really a gentle way of looking at life. As a mental-health professional it can be a very practical tool in intervention, but also for yourself. As you already know, you are your own tool, and you have to take care of yourself first. Here is a theoretical introduction to this subject, explaining what it is, what it is for, and how to develop it, so that one day you can add this approach to both your professional and personal toolboxes.

What is Self-Compassion?

« We are not alone in our imperfection » - Christopher Germer et Kristin D. Neff (2013)

We are not alone in our imperfection [traduction libre] as Christopher Germer and Kristin D. Neff (2013), two psychologists and pioneers in self-compassion in North America, so beautifully put it. It is a significant sentence because it really represents what is at the heart of self-compassion and carries a lot of kindness in this very demanding world.

Now you must be wondering what, more specifically, is self-compassion? To summarise, it is having a feeling of compassion towards yourself. Pretty logical really! And what is compassion? It is noticing the suffering of others and feeling the desire to help them in some way to relieve it. So, by deduction, self-compassion is noticing your own suffering without judgement, and desiring to help yourself be relieved from it. To really understand what it is, we can go deeper into the theory by breaking down self-compassion. Germer and Neff (2013) explain that there are three components of self-compassion:

  • self-kindness.
  • mindfulness.
  • common humanity.

Self-kindness is being gentle and understanding rather than critical towards yourself whenever you encounter difficulty, failure, or feel inadequate. Common humanity is understanding and remembering that every human being goes through times of suffering and that everyone makes mistakes in life, instead of isolating yourself. Mindfulness is welcoming the present moment without judgement and without trying to change what is happening to us. It is letting your emotions and thoughts come and go without trying to suppress or deny them.

The Benefits of Self-Compassion

We believe that making room for self-compassion in your life can bring a real change in the way you see things and overcome both big and small challenges. Incidentally, I’m not the only one who thinks so. As a matter of fact, a review of the scientific literature done by Barnard and Curry (2011) reports many studies that show correlation between self-compassion and good mental health. Among other things, self-compassion is linked to a positive mood and emotions (Leary et al., 2007; Neff et al., 2007; Neff & Vonk, 2009) and to well-being in general (Neely et al., 2009). These studies also show that the more self-compassionate you are, the more likely you are to avoid procrastinating and showing maladaptive perfectionism behaviours (Leary et al., 2007; Neff et al., 2005). For this reason, it would certainly be an excellent tool for someone who lives with performance anxiety, for example. Additionally, a high level of self-compassion is also directly connected to having a good perception of our own skills and being resilient in the face of failure (Williams et al., 2008). This correlation could mean that self-compassion could be used to work on self-esteem problems, as both components are directly related.

Choose to Be the Compassionate Friend

To make sure the link between self-compassion and its benefits is clear, here is an example. First, as a therapist, you already know that compassion has a huge part to play in helping people to confide in us. A compassionate person becomes deeply conscious of other people’s suffering, without judgement, and feels a real need to help relieve them of it. This caring makes it easier to confide. Without it, the person who confides feels even worse. So, let’s imagine this person is not doing well and they confide in someone who is critical and who makes them feel abnormal and like they are alone in their suffering, who tells them to stop complaining… They will probably end up feeling much worse after. Now imagine this same scenario but with self-compassion instead of compassion. In moments you are not doing so well, you have the choice to beat yourself down even more, to try to avoid thinking about it, to criticize and isolate yourself. You also have the choice to be kind to yourself by feeling your emotions in that moment and hoping for it to end soon. The first choice is being the judgemental person and the second, the compassionate friend. So why not try to be a compassionate friend to yourself? You will probably feel a lot better than if you acted out of judgement of yourself, right? It’s exactly the same as for our clients.

How to Develop Self-Compassion

If you have now been convinced that self-compassion is a useful tool, you might be wondering: How can it be developed? In fact, there are many ways to be more compassionate towards yourself. The most concrete approach is practising mindful meditation for self-compassion. There are many types, such as conscious breathing, giving and taking meditation, affectionate breathing, compassionate body scan, etc. You can easily find meditation practices on the internet, like on the Autocompassion Montréal website. These are also exercises you can learn to be able to share in sessions with your clients. However, first you should make sure that you understand well and have mastered the techniques, and that they reach the person you’re helping, meaning that they are a tool that speaks to them.

It can also be developed through informal practices in day-to-day life such as soothing touch, mindful walking, self-compassionate writing, etc. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you… Here is an example of soothing touch: Kristin Neff (2022) explains on her website that it means giving yourself a supportive touch as a caring gesture during difficult moments in life. It is important to figure out where on your body a gentle touch is actually soothing. It could be placing a hand on your chest over your heart or hugging yourself while crossing your arms. You could make small circles with your hand, or gently rub your arms or face. This kind of touch releases hormones, like oxytocin, that provide a sense of security, soothe distressing emotions, and calm the cardiovascular system (Neff, 2022). Her website, where you will find other exercises to try, is linked in the references.

The first step you can take to integrate self-compassion into your life is to educate yourself, read up on it, and work on your thinking, one step at a time, to replace your inner critical voice with a compassionate, caring, welcoming voice.

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