Hopefully, wellness informs several choices you make throughout an average day- what you eat, where you go, what your routine is, and how you make time for what brings you joy. While lifestyle choices like these are key to wellness, what is driving them is equally important. For instance, do you exercise and eat healthy because you love your body or because you hate it? When wellness routines are driven by self-compassion instead of self-criticism, these routines have a greater net impact on your physical and psychological health.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is both a mindset and a practice. It shows up in your thoughts and feelings about yourself and in how you respond to situations. Self-compassion is about the relationship you have with yourself and the extent to which you are understanding, accepting, and kind to yourself. In practice, it means forgiving yourself for mistakes, embracing yourself despite your flaws, and being gentle to yourself during difficult times.
Self-compassionate people see themselves as worthy and deserving of love and demonstrate this sense of worthiness in the way they talk to themselves, the way they treat themselves, and the way they allow others to treat them. Many people find that they are conditionally self-compassionate but find it harder to practice when they are insecure, stressed out, or have made a mistake. Unfortunately, these also tend to be the times when self-compassion is needed most.
Why is self-compassion important to wellness?
While some believe self-criticism is motivating, research suggests otherwise. Dr. Kristen Neff, a renowned psychologist who has pioneered research into self-compassion, has found that people who are self-compassionate are more motivated, more confident in their abilities, less afraid to fail, and are more likely to reach their goals. Self-compassion helps people differentiate between failing at something and being a failure, which people who are self-critical often mix up. Self-compassion also fosters resilience; when self-compassionate people make a mistake or encounter an obstacle, they are more likely to get back up, dust themselves off, and continue striving.
Dr. Neff’s research also found that self-compassionate people have lower rates of anxiety and depression, two of the most common types of mental health issues in the country. Self-compassionate people also have lower levels of stress, better relationships, and describe feeling more satisfied overall with their lives. Further, people who are self-compassionate were found to make healthier lifestyle decisions like eating well, sleeping enough, exercising, and avoiding vices like drugs or alcohol.
How do you become more self-compassionate?
The good news is that self-criticism and self-compassion are habits, and habits can change. Self-compassion and criticism are habits with both mental and behavioral components. The mental component has to do with the thoughts you have about yourself and the behavioral aspect is about the extent to which you prioritize your own wants and needs. To target both, you will need to change some things about the way you think and the way you act. To get you started, here are 3 easy ways to break self-critical habits and build self-compassionate habits:
Think kinder thoughts
Pay close attention to your thoughts during times when you are likely to be self-critical. This might be at the gym, in the board room, or when you are getting dressed in the morning. When you notice a self-critical thought, you can use a reframing skill borrowed from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that helps shift your perspective in a healthier, less critical way. For instance, the thought, “I always mess up something” might shift to something more compassionate like, “Sometimes I make mistakes, but so does everyone else!” or even, “I mess up sometimes, but there are a lot of times when I do things really well”.
Write yourself a letter
In her research, Dr. Neff found that when research participants wrote a kind letter to themselves and then read it back afterwards, their self-compassion increased. The letter can be written about a specific mistake you made or insecurity you have, or any other issue that triggers self-criticism. The essential part of the exercise is that the letter should be written in a way that you might write or talk to a friend having a similar issue. You might include something in your letter acknowledging how difficult your issue is, praising your efforts or resilience, or just offering support or encouragement. You can read more about how to complete a self-compassion letter at this link.
Practice small acts of self-kindness
To target the behavioral aspect of self-critical habits, you will need to be consistent in practicing self-compassion, even in very small ways. Some of the things you already do as a part of your self-care or wellness routine could easily be used as self-compassion practice. Be intentional about choosing one act of self-kindness each day. This might mean going to a yoga class, seeing a friend for lunch, getting a massage, or taking an extra 10 minutes on your break to sit outside in the sun. Think of each act of self-compassion as a small gift to yourself, an affirmation of your worthiness, and a way of continuing to commit to your own wellness.