On being nice to yourself: 3-steps to self-compassion

Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness…

Galway Kinnell in “Saint Francis and the Sow

For most of my life, I’ve responded to emotional pain and conflict by urging myself forward. I’d aspire to work harder, raise the bar, not let myself off so easily, etc. – typical entrepreneur / personal development shit.

Setting boundaries – even when I really needed to – used to feel almost impossible. The idea that sometimes my needs were more important than people-pleasing felt kinda dangerous and selfish. As a result, I used to spend a lot of time in shame when I accidentally hurt, let down, annoyed, or upset someone.

In the last few years, I’ve been able to replace my tendency for self-loathing with something different. When I notice that I’m struggling or beating myself up, I use the pain as a cue to practice self-compassion.

I recently read Kristen Neff’s excellent book, “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Nice to Yourself” (Bookshop, Amazon). I started using one of her exercises and noticed the difference instantly. So I began teaching it to some of my patients. Many, like me, found that it’s helped them navigate shame, self-loathing and darkness. They said that it’s made it easier for them to find a bit of light when they need it.

The exercise is simple. When you notice that you’re beating yourself up or struggling with something, follow these three steps:

First, acknowledge that this is hard for you. That it sucks. So often when we’re dealing with something unpleasant, we push against it, blame ourselves, or escape to denial and distraction. That only makes things worse. Instead try slowing down and acknowledging that this is hard for you. That you’re in pain.

Many of us have a tendency to judge ourselves when we feel guilt, jealousy, anger, shame, pain, etc. over “stupid” or “trivial” things. This can create a pretty dark spiral. Instead of judging yourself for feeling bad, just try to accept that you feel bad. Even “small” feelings deserve compassion (and sometimes the small feelings are pretty big).  

Second, remind yourself that pain, suffering, strife, disappointment, loss, etc. is a universal part of the human experience. Pain has a nasty habit of becoming the center of our world. We don’t just lose connection to ourselves, we lose connection to everyone else too. Slowing down to remind yourself that everyone deals with this stuff helps expand your focus and sense of connection. Knowing that we all deal with this shit makes it a bit easier.

Finally, set the intention to be kind to yourself. For most of us, our natural response to pain and difficulty is to beat ourselves up. This is common, but not useful. It’s much better to be kind to ourselves. So we conclude the exercise by setting the intention, “May I be kind to myself.” Sometimes that intention flourishes into new action. Sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless, it’s the intention that’s important here.

Neff suggests coming up with three phrases – in your own language – that encapsulate the steps above. This way when the pressure’s on, you have a clear and personalized three step process to practice self-compassion. I wrote mine on my white board. Clients have put sticky notes on their computer, written them on their mirrors, and created custom wallpapers for their phones.

To give you a sense of what the phrases look like, mine are:

1) “This is hard for me.”

2) “This too is part of the universal experience. Everyone deals with some version of this type of pain.”

3) “May I be kind to myself.”

So the exercise, in totality looks like this: you notice that you’re struggling. Maybe you’re feeling lonely, afraid, ashamed, anxious, or anything. It doesn’t matter if the cause of your feelings seems small or stupid, all that matters is that you’ve noticed the darkness. So you pause and acknowledge it. “This is difficult for me.” Next, you remind yourself that everyone deals with this stuff; it’s a normal part of life. “This too is part of the universal human experience.” Finally, you wish yourself well. “May I be kind to myself.”

That’s it. It takes 20 seconds. Maybe a minute if you go slowly. I’ll often put my hands gently over my heart, close my eyes, and take a deep breath to slow down as I go through the practice in my mind. Sometimes I’ll whisper the phrases to myself. Learning to treat yourself with compassion makes it easier to cut through pain and darkness. It creates the space to reconnect to your true self and bounce back from the bullshit of life.

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