Most of us are experiencing increased stress levels due to financial fears, social isolation and health concerns as a result of COVID-19. When stress levels are high, our internal resources (like patience and resilience, for example) get depleted. That means that we are more likely to get irritated by little things, say something we will regret later or let the negative voices in our head make us believe we aren’t good enough or that we don’t deserve to be treated kindly. For that reason, it’s important that we learn how to use self-compassion as an effective tool to reduce stress, so that we can be more internally resourced to handle the curve balls life throws our way.
For some, self-compassion may come easily. However, for most of us self-compassion doesn’t come naturally. It doesn’t come naturally because we didn’t grow up in a home filled with unconditional love and acceptance that would help us develop a compassionate inner dialogue.
Neglect, abuse or authoritarian parents can lead to feelings of shame, which makes receiving kindness and being kind to oneself difficult. Dysfunctional homes create feelings of being undeserving and not worthy, as well as a harsh internal critic. Paradoxically, being kind to others might come easily, but treating oneself with that same understanding, patience or warmth feels impossible.
This is because your parent’s critical, abusive or emotionally neglectful voice has been internalized as your own without realizing that the harsh, self-loathing inner critic doesn’t belong to you but rather to them. In this article, I will teach you what self-compassion is and how to cultivate it for yourself as a way of combating stress.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion, as defined by Kristen Neff (2011), has three components: self-kindness, being human and mindfulness. Self-kindness entails responding to oneself with the same warmth and comfort that you would extend to a friend experiencing pain or who’s being hard on themselves, rather than ignoring your suffering or criticizing it.
Being human requires one to extend empathy towards yourself by recognizing that we all experience personal pain and setbacks.
Lastly, mindfulness involves becoming a neutral observer to your emotions by observing them with open mindedness and compassionate curiosity instead of exaggerating, judging or suppressing them.
Furthermore, self-compassion isn’t just a definition. It’s a feeling. Some words that come to my mind when I think of what compassion is are kindness, nurturing, empathic attunement, unconditional love and acceptance, and a “felt sense” of being deeply understood and heard.
What are some words or feelings that come to your mind when you think about compassion? Can you recall a time that someone responded to you with compassion? How did it make you feel? What does compassion look like?
When you think about a time when you felt genuine compassion from another person, notice how you feel inside. You may notice your body relaxing, your breath deepening or a feeling of warmth enveloping your heart. This felt sense is the feeling of safety that comes from being actively nurtured, comforted and cared for and it is this felt sense that I want to teach you how to cultivate within yourself. Learning how to nurture/comfort oneself is the piece that, for so many, was either missing or inconsistent during childhood. Specifically, self-compassion requires you to actively comfort and nurture yourself rather than simply being patient or tolerant.
Learning how to nurture/comfort oneself is the piece that, for so many, was either missing or inconsistent during childhood. Specifically, self-compassion requires you to actively comfort and nurture yourself rather than simply being patient or tolerant.
In order to actively comfort and nurture yourself, you must start by learning to own your inner experience. So often we try to ignore how we feel, or we try to get rid of our feelings with strategies like abusing substances or we argue with how we feel driving our shame deeper. None of these strategies help us learn how to effectively cope with stress. That is why I’m going to teach you a technique called, Focusing, to help you cultivate self-compassion as a way of decreasing stress. Ann Cornell, Ph.D. (1996) writes about this technique in her book, The Power of Focusing.
Exercise: Cultivating Self-Compassion with Focusing
1. Close your eyes and turn your attention inward. Try to notice a felt sense in your body. It can be identifying an emotion or noticing a physical sensation like cold or warmth, or tightness/bracing in a certain area of the body. Now, simply say to the feeling, “Hello. I know you’re there.”
This first step may seem simple but can actually be quite powerful at calming the mind. This step is important because you are actively connecting with your felt sense, as if it were your friend rather than an unwanted guest. So often we judge our experience and believe our felt sense is bad before we have even been introduced! A felt sense is there because it wants to be listened to and because it cares about your survival. If you want to hear its message, you can create a safe place for it to express itself. Would you want to share your inner most anxiety, hurts or fears with someone that you know is actively shaming you or judging you before you have even spoken?
2. After saying hello, it’s important to notice how it responds to your greeting. Does the felt sense get stronger and more intense? Does it instantly relax? Does it change to another felt sense all together? Do you feel a surge of relief or a friendly hello in response? As you notice how your body is responding and as new feelings/sensations emerge remember to greet each one with a friendly, open and curious, “Hello. I know you are there.” Remember to take your time with this process of letting the felt sense unfold without rushing or pressuring yourself to get to the bottom of what the felt sense means.
3. After you have stayed with a felt sense and feel it is no longer continuing to change, try and describe it to yourself in great detail. The description might come as one word, a phrase, an image, a sound or even a physical gesture with the body. Again, be patient with this process. This is important because you are working towards gaining clarity about a part that hasn’t been explored before. As you describe the felt sense, you are getting closer and closer to solving the puzzle that is the mind/body’s way of communicating.
Don’t worry about whether or not you are getting the description “right”. Keep throwing things out until you arrive on the description that lands in your gut with a resonating sense of “YES! That’s exactly what it feels like!”. At this point, you may feel a flood of relief or a big surge of energy. If that’s the case, feel free to stop there and enjoy the pleasant sensations in your body. If you are unable to land on the description that feels right, that’s ok too. Doing a gentle exploration is much more productive than trying to force it. Understanding will come with time. The most important part of this exercise is to stay in touch with the felt sense in the body, while gently working towards connecting it to a description.
4. At this point, you may want to continue your exploration to gain more clarity. If so, begin asking the felt sense questions from a place of open curiosity. Remember, you are learning how to actively comfort yourself with self-compassion. Some examples of good questions to ask are; “What makes you so scared, frustrated, tired, lonely?”, “What do you need from me/the world?”, “What would you need in order to know that it’s safe for you to let go?”, “How old are you?”, “Is there a childhood memory that is connected to you?”, “What would be important for me to know about you?”.
5. Lastly, when it is time to bring your exploration to a close it is important to let the body know that you have to stop now but to inquire whether there is anything else it would like you to know before stopping. The problem may or may not feel resolved in a way that is satisfying to the logical brain but trust that the body has its own wisdom for revealing things at its own pace.
We have all had experiences growing up that shaped who we believe ourselves to be and how welcoming, supportive and friendly the world we live in is. These beliefs resulted in behaviors and expectations that helped us survive our childhoods. So many of these beliefs are hidden within our subconscious but they end up coming out in the way we treat ourselves and our expectations about how others are going to treat us.
As an adult, these beliefs need to be updated because we are no longer living in the same circumstances we grew up in. Specifically, we now have access to resources and choices that we didn’t have as a child – but our subconscious hasn’t gotten that update. By gaining insight and understanding from a place of compassion for ourselves, we are able to begin a dialogue that can transform these beliefs. This dialogue will help bring these younger parts into the present time, so that your adult self can re-parent them with the love, compassion and understanding they needed back then. Being hypercritical or neglectful of these parts, keeps them frozen in childhood and prevents you from creating the life of ease that you deserve.
So remember, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, slow down, tap into the felt sense and say hello. You may be surprised by what you find there.
Neff, Kristen (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. William Morrow Paperbacks.
Ann Weiser Cornell (1996). The Power of Focusing. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.