The antithesis to self criticism is self compassion. Self compassion is extending the same compassion to yourself that you would to a good friend. Kristin Neff, Ph.D, an associate professor in human development who studies self compassion, explains that self compassion is composed of three parts: mindfulness, common humanity and self kindness. Dr. Neff has created an online quiz to assess your level of self compassion.
It sounds like a nice notion, treating yourself with kindness, but it’s more than that. Practicing self compassion can actually improve your health. Positive emotions are the counterbalance to our threat activation system. If we are soothed, calm, or feel contentment, it stimulates our vagus nerve and our parasympathetic nervous system. Compassion meditations lower the stress hormone cortisol and inflammatory cytokine IL-6.
It can be challenging to accept kindness from strangers and even harder to accept it from ourselves. You know what I hear most often when I ask patients about accepting kindness or being kind to themselves? They think they don't deserve it. Take a minute to think back to the last time someone did something kind for you. Did you accept it with gratitude? Did you feel awkward? Maybe even a little guilty because you couldn’t or didn’t reciprocate? What about the last time you performed a random act of kindness? How did you feel? It feels really good to do something kind for someone else, but we struggle to extend that same kindness to ourselves and accept it from others.
I want to be clear that self compassion is not a cop-out. We all make mistakes. We all have biases, prejudices and learned behaviors to work on. Healthy self reflection and improvement can be done from a place of love and caring. Self compassion teaches you to approach yourself with kindness, even when you need to grow and learn. Let’s be clear, we are all constantly growing and evolving. We all make mistakes and have a lot to learn about being human. If your friend or a young child made a mistake, how would you speak to them about it? Self compassion is extending that same grace to yourself instead of harsh self reproach.
Healthy self-improvement may help boost your self-esteem. Instead of tearing yourself down, what if you built yourself up? Focus on your good qualities and recognize when you stop, reflect and grow. Self esteem may buffer against acute stressors and lead to more resiliency.
Dr. Neff’s website is full of tools you can use to improve your self compassion. One of my favorites I recommend to my autoimmune patients is loving kindness meditation. Compassion medication can reduce stress induced immune changes.
Working through your inner self critic and cultivating self compassion can be challenging. I recommend checking out Dr. Neff’s resources including her book Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and consider working with a mental health professional especially if you are working through shame and trauma.
I will leave you with a mantra from Dr. Neff’s book about building self compassion:
“This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.”
Self compassion as a predictor of interleukin-6 response to psychosocial stress
Higher self esteem reduced the inflammatory response to acute stressors.
Compassion meditation reduced stress induced immune changes
Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff