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If a doctor told you that there was one simple thing that you could do to lower your risk of illness, reduce your stress, and at the same time increase your ability to eat healthy and exercise, you would probably do it, right?
Well, it turns out that researchers have been hard at work investigating this impressive activity, but the prescription may not be exactly what one would expect: a healthy dose of self-compassion.
In honor of a (very commercialized) holiday all about love, I thought I’d spend some time on a different kind of love — the love we show (or don’t show) toward ourselves.
How to Love Yourself (In Order to Love Others)
It turns out a little cliche like “learn to love yourself” isn’t just a pretty line to say … it has a real impact on our physical and mental well-being.
As moms we are quick to lavish praise on our kids. We tell them it’s OK to make mistakes. “Don’t give up! You’ll get it next time!” we say. We cheer for them from the sidelines at their games, win or lose. If someone at school teases them, we tell them the opposite and give them a big hug.
The question is though — how often do we, the moms, talk to ourselves in the same loving way?
I think I can guess at the answer …
The Science of Love
I certainly don’t believe love can (or should) be reduced to a “science,” but there has been an abundance of literature released in recent years outlining the health benefits of practicing self-compassion or treating oneself with kindness.
Although it’s not normally what a doctor would prescribe, it appears that something as basic as cultivating a patient and understanding attitude toward ourselves may actually make all the difference to our general well-being.
And I’m pretty sure that’s good for our spouses/sweethearts/kids/family members as well!
Most people are familiar with the general concept of compassion—a basic drive towards kindness and concern for the well-being of others. It’s interesting to note that compassion is derived from the Latin root passio (to suffer) and the prefix com (meaning together): to suffer together.
Self-compassion is quite simply compassion that is directed inward. It involves being aware of one’s own struggles, and holding those with tenderness, kindness, and patience.
While most people find it natural to offer words of encouragement and understanding to their kids, a spouse, a friend, or a coworker, it can be surprisingly difficult to do the same for ourselves.
Before we talk about what we can do to improve our positive self-talk, let’s look at what experts say self-compassion isn’t. See if you agree…
It Isn’t Self-Indulgence
Perhaps one of the reasons why we’re resistant to the idea of being kind to ourselves is because it can be seen as prideful, lazy, indulgent, or weak.
We are culturally very attached to a “no pain, no gain” mentality when it comes to health and success, yet studies show that individuals with greater levels of self-compassion actually demonstrate less motivational anxiety and use of fewer self-limiting behaviors like procrastination.
Kristen Neff, PhD, is at the forefront of research on self-compassion (she’s credited with coining the term in recent literature). She writes in this article on “The Motivational Power of Self-Compassion”:
Self compassion is not the same as being easy on ourselves. It’s a way of nurturing ourselves so that we can reach our full potential.
Self-compassion doesn’t mean we show up to work only when we feel like it, or give ourselves a pass without a reason. It does have to do with the messages we send ourselves, every minute of every day, and how our body perceives those messages, for better or worse.
It Isn’t Self-Esteem
It is important to point out that self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem, which can change based on external circumstances or achievements. In fact, self-compassion is needed most when self-esteem is low.
It Isn’t Easy
It may sound like a simple enough idea but in a culture that values competition, productivity, and pushing oneself to the limit it’s a virtue that’s all too easily ignored. I know I’m guilty! (I blame my genetics for my Type A personality…)
Moms today are especially vulnerable. After all we are trying to navigate all of the many needs of home, finances, career, and family. We feel the great responsibility of caring for and shaping young minds and bodies, not to mention juggling all the practical needs of life.
It’s hard to forgive ourselves when things go “wrong” or we aren’t all we wish to be.
Three Ways to Have Self-Compassion
In case the term still seems a little “out there,” let’s take a closer look at three specific ways Dr. Neff says we can exercise self-compassion.
- Mindfulness — Most of us tend to turn immediately to self-criticism and judgement when we make a mistake. There can also be a tendency to over-identify with thoughts. For example, “The house is messy again” quickly morphs into thoughts like “I can’t manage my life” and then into “I am a bad person.” Mindfulness helps to bring awareness to these patterns so that they can begin to shift.
- Self-kindness — The self-kindness branch of self-compassion extends an attitude of understanding, caring, tenderness, and patience towards oneself. Self-kindness also means making regular self-care a priority.
- Common humanity — Sounds a bit unusual, but this just means an awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others around us (who probably struggle just like we do). It helps to create social normalization that reduces isolation and shame. This can contribute to more positive communication skills and relationships.
One practical way to work on retraining our thoughts is to journal 5-10 minutes every day. Think back on your inner thoughts toward yourself during the day. Were they kind? Were they true? Another tool I’ve found useful for quieting the mind is the Muse brain sensing headband. It turns mindfulness and meditation into a fun game.
Health Benefits of Self-Compassion
To some, the concept of self-compassion may still sound overly eccentric or abstract, and maybe even a little “woo”. However, there is mounting research pointing to the very real, practical health benefits that it provides.
To start, research shows having higher levels of self-compassion significantly improves mental health and feelings of well-being. One review demonstrated that self-compassion increases the following favorable traits: happiness, optimism, life-satisfaction, body appreciation, perceived competence, motivation, and social connectedness.
Self-compassion has also been linked with lower overall rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.
Better Lifestyle Habits
The advantages of self-compassion are not limited to the mental realm either. Pooling evidence from fifteen studies, researchers discovered that self-compassion is positively associated with health promoting behaviors that decrease the risk for disease such as healthy eating, physical activity, sleep hygiene, and stress management.
Counteracts Physical Effects of Stress
Other studies have revealed that self-compassion has deep physiological roots. Practicing self-compassion deactivates the stress-inducing fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system, while triggering the rest and digest function in the parasympathetic nervous system.
Engaging in a self-compassion exercise (basically prayer, meditation, or positive thinking) even just for a few minutes has been found to significantly lower cortisol levels and improve heart rate variability, providing an immediate soothing physiological response.
Learning Positive Self-Talk
If you currently find yourself riddled with significant self-criticism, judgement, or guilt, there is no need to panic. Traits of self-compassion can be developed and strengthened over time through practice.
There are now many resources available that provide self-compassion building exercises to try in the forms of prayer, meditation, reflections, and journaling. Listen to this podcast with Peter Crone to learn ways to be more mindful of the language we use with ourselves and others.
Grab any free time you can find (even if it’s in the shower!) and reflect on these questions:
What Am I Telling Myself?
Ask yourself, and answer truthfully: What do I say to myself on a daily basis? How is my tone when I talk to myself?
I was surprised when I tried this how easily some pretty harsh repetitive put-downs came to mind.
For a more complete view of your own self-talk patterns it can be useful to begin with a self-compassion assessment, which provides a snapshot of how compassionate to yourself you currently are. This short, free, 26-item quiz could be a great start, followed by these self-guided self-compassion exercises.
What’s Really True?
Once you’ve isolated a few key statements that run through your head on any given day, write them down. Ask yourself if those statements are even true, and if they aren’t modify them until they are accurate. Write down your new script for self-talk, and review it often … until it sticks.
What Did I Do Well?
We often tend to focus just on what we did wrong or what didn’t go right. Make accomplishments tangible by writing them down and celebrate what did go well. Kids love to be part of this and will learn a lot by joining in this exercise. We try to do some form of this every day after lunch.
Stay Focused & Set Limits
It’s time to let go of the mom guilt. We can’t do it all or be it all and accepting our limits can be very freeing. I learned this lesson the hard way. (Check out this podcast and maybe you won’t have to.)
Once you’ve decide to experiment with a self-compassion practice, it can be helpful to sample several types in order to find a style and/or teacher that resonates with you personally. There are a few books I like on the subject including:
- Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff
- The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens (also by Dr. Kristin Neff)
- For the more scientifically inclined, The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science
- From a Christian perspective, Telling Yourself the Truth by William Backus and Marie Chapian
With practice, we can start showing ourselves (and others around us) a lot more love.
It’s not always easy to be aware of our inner thoughts (that would require some peace and quiet!), but how we talk to ourselves has a real impact on our mental and physical health. Try these tips for increasing self-compassion and let me know if it helps you!
This article was medically reviewed by Amy Shah, MD, Medical Advisor to Genexa through partnership with the Wellness Mama Team. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you practice any mindfulness exercises that help with self compassion? What does your self-talk sound like? Please share below!