Self-Compassion Exercises to Boost Your Happiness

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Most people think of self-compassion as being kind to yourself. Although that is certainly a part of the concept, self-compassion involves a way of relating to yourself in a way that allows you to become more emotionally flexible, able to navigate challenging emotions, and enhance your connection to self and others. The ability to relate to ourselves in a compassionate way may sound easy enough but, in fact, it can be quite a challenge.

You may find it easy to be compassionate toward a friend or loved one when they come to you with a personal struggle or a challenging situation. Your response to them may be one of understanding, hope, guidance and encouragement.

However, when we are faced with our own life challenges, we tend to be a little more harsh or critical with ourselves. We examine our thoughts and behaviors in a way that can leave us feeling unworthy, ashamed and frustrated with ourselves. In an effort to keep moving forward, we may tell ourselves to "buck up," or "get over it." Although the intent is to help move us forward during times of emotional challenge, this way of relating to ourselves can create an extraordinary amount of stress and become a significant obstacle in our ability to experience happiness within ourselves and with others.

Three Elements of Self-Compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist and pioneering researcher in the area of self-compassion, outlines three elements of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness: When people who practice self-compassion find themselves in challenging situations, they recognize that being imperfect or falling short at times is a part of living. The ability to navigate these experiences without putting yourself down is an element of self-compassion.
  2. Common humanity: When we are faced with challenges, it can be easy to feel alone in our experience, as if others would not be able to relate to what we are going through. People who practice self-compassion understand that some of these challenges are part of the shared human experience.
  3. Mindfulness: Practicing self-compassion involves being able to observe our uncomfortable emotions without exaggerating them or ignoring them. This mindful and balanced stance helps us to not become emotionally reactive.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

There are a variety of exercises that Dr. Neff suggests can help us learn the practice of self-compassion:

  • Imagine how you would talk to a friend. We can often extend kind words, hope and encouragement to friends or loved ones. When going through a difficult time, take a moment to consider how you might respond to a close friend if they were going through a similar situation.
  • Become an observer. During times when we feel challenged or struggling emotionally, it can feel like we are simply reacting and trying to emotionally survive the moment. By slowing down, we can take a small step back to observe our experience. Looking at the bigger picture can help us keep things in perspective and help us see important information that may have been missed otherwise.
  • Change your self-talk. Notice how you talk to yourself in moments when you are experiencing negative emotion. Work to reframe your critical self-statements in a more positive, nurturing way. This new tone may sound more like a mentor or advocate, rather than a critic or judge.
  • Keep a journal and write it out. Take time each day to write out some of the challenges you are experiencing. Note moments as your mind tends to wander into critical statements or you begin to feel alone in your experiences. As you would with self-talk, intentionally reframe any critical statements with a softer, more understanding tone to see how it might feel different.
  • Become clear about what you want. As you practice ways to reframe critical thoughts into more nurturing self talk, you can start uncovering clues as to what you are needing and wanting. Take a moment to consider what you want, need or long for in your life. Clarifying these needs will help you focus on where you want to go and what you are working toward, helping to increase motivation and happiness.
  • Care for yourself. Sometimes we take care of others and overlook, or completely ignore, the need to take care of ourselves. When practicing self-compassion you are recognizing that you have needs to be met as well and are worthy of engaging in those self-care behaviors. The ability to establish self-care practices can help lessen the desire to engage in unhealthy coping behaviors when faced with challenges and stress.

Help to Calm Negative Emotions

The practice of self-compassion—compassionate thinking in particular—has been found to produce beneficial psychological changes on negative emotion. Using self-compassion techniques can help calm the experience of negative emotion and allow people to remember that they are not alone in their experiences of hurt, pain, and loss. In the practice of compassionate statements and reappraisal, the feeling of negative emotion can feel calmed, making room for mindful observation and healthy decision making. Practicing self-compassion can also allow for the surfacing of creativity and motivation.

Help to Increase Positive Emotions

Self-compassion has been found to foster positive emotion, especially soothing, warm, and safe feelings. Although this can certainly help in times of distress, it can also be helpful in our daily living practices. We experience daily interactions in our personal lives, at work, or even with strangers, that have the potential to prompt a reactive emotional response. Using techniques of self-compassion can allow us to become more mindful of ourselves and our decision making, resulting in more balanced and positive interactions with others.

A Word From Verywell

As Dr. Neff describes, the practice of self-compassion can be very different than anything you have done before. Although the techniques are used to help us relate better to ourselves and better navigate challenging emotional experiences, it may feel a bit uncomfortable as you begin to practice some of these methods. Be patient with yourself and remember that we cannot control every aspect of our lives, including how quickly we are able to transform old, self-critical, habits into new, healthy and compassionate habits.

Pursuing greater happiness through the practice of self-compassion is a gift to yourself and to those around you. In practicing self-compassion, you may find that interactions with others soften and become less reactive, you may find yourself willing to move forward in an area that you previously felt a bit stuck. In fact, you may begin experiencing happiness as you seek out new, healthy ways of living and relating to yourself.

Sources:

Kohki, A. & Hoffman, S. (2015). Effects of compassionate thinking on negative emotions. Journal of Cognition and Emotion.

Neff, K. (2017). Three elements of self-compassion. Retrieved February 26, 2017 from http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/#3elements