3 Ways to Initiate Self-Compassion

Photo by Loren Joseph

While it is true that self-compassion begins in the mind, actively soothing and comforting yourself is key to transforming this concept into long-term healing.

Receiving Kindness: Letting the Compassion In

Not only is it essential to use compassionate words and gestures with yourself, it is important to open to the possibility of receiving this kind attention. Receiving kindness means soaking it in and letting it nourish you. Let the compassion love you. Doing your best to let go of doubts, negative chatter, and feelings that hold you back from fully opening to the love within you. Allowing every cell of your being feel that this love is always here for you just because you exist. You do not have to work for it. You do not have to create it. You can simply welcome it.

Regardless of how good this may sound, opening to kindness is one of the most difficult things to do, often because of the vulnerability we touch into just thinking about it. Many patients have shared with me that allowing compassion in brings up difficult experiences, such as times they did not receive compassion or a sense that they don’t deserve compassion. Some people find that when they practice self-compassion, they also notice pain more clearly. It feels like we are feeling more pain, but actually, we are just more aware of the amount of pain we are unconsciously carrying, most often in places we did not receive the love and compassion we needed.In the self-compassion community, we call this phenomena backdraft, a firefighting term that describes what happens when a door in a burning house is opened – oxygen goes in and flames rush out. 

Fortunately we can meet this previously unrecognized pain with gentle attention, the way we might soothe a child in distress. In the event that self-compassion exercises feel overwhelming, see if you can recognize what you need in the moment. Sometimes the most compassionate thing to do in an overwhelming moment is to privilege emotional safety by engaging in calming behaviors. For example, you might notice your feet on the ground, or take a deep breath, or remember the caring eyes of a dear friend.

There are times when we might try to push past discomfort and end up reinforcing an unskillful ways to be in relationship with ourselves. Please allow yourself to be a slow learner. It took a long time to develop a negative pattern and it will take time and patience with yourself to develop a more positive habit.

Kristin Neff’s Three Paths to Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff, one of the more recent voices in the self-compassion movement, suggested three main ways to initiate self-compassion. I find them to be a helpful foundation when taking your first steps in what I hope will be integrated into your daily life: 

  1. Kind Words
  2. Caring Tone of Voice
  3. Soothing Gestures

1. The first way to initiate self-compassion is to speak to yourself with kindness.  

Many of us are used to saying the most awful things to ourselves! I am no exception. Some of the things I catch myself saying to myself I would never say to my partner, a friend, or family member. In fact, when I was first learning self-compassion practices they felt superficial and trite and I did not “buy in” as easily as you might assume.

I did, however, trust that something good would come of it. From work with my patients and intensive inner work on myself, I know that long-term change takes attention, care, and time. I took my own advice about allowing myself to be a slow learner and just kept trying.

It wasn’t until I earnestly practiced and refined the second step that I felt a significant shift inside myself. 

2. The second way to initiate self-compassion is to use a caring tone of voice. 

This one is very difficult for most people. This is because the critical, cautious, fear-based tone is often the voice that has been passed from generation to generation. “What were you thinking?” “You know better than that!” “What are you crying about? I’ll give you something to cry about!” And on and on it goes. We second-guess ourselves, tell ourselves we should have known better, or judge ourselves for being so sensitive. Internalized voices from our early years are often grooved in the psyche and create a negative and self-critical inner environment.

To change the harsh tone is not only a way to re-parent ourselves, it is a way to rewire the brain and central nervous system.

Sometimes it is helpful to imagine yourself as a young girl who is upset or sad when you practice the caring tone of voice. Do whatever it takes to fully and genuinely embody care, concern, and compassion and notice how you respond. 

3. Soothing gestures give us the third way to initiate self-compassion. 

Once you are using kind words and a caring tone of voice, you have 2 of the 3 steps down.  Now you are ready to put the icing on the cake. Soothe yourself with calming gestures. Remind your nervous system that you are safe and can relax.

To do this, you might consider rubbing your hand over your heart while taking a deep breath. You could move toward rubbing your cheek with the soft back of your hand. Holding the muscle in the back of your neck calms the nervous system and is an excellent way to initiate self-compassion. 

Explore what feels most comforting to you in any given moment and see how you respond. There is no perfect gesture. It is all about finding what gesture is what you need to soothe your nervous system from the inner critic. 

Practicing Self-Compassion: The Self-Compassion Break

Now that we have explored the concepts of how to initiate self-compassion, let’s turn toward one of my favorite practices that exemplify the steps. It is called the Self-Compassion Break and is a 5 minute exercise I learned from Kristin Neff and adapted for my course, How to Shift the Anxious Mind: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Self-Compassion and Mindfulness.

You can listen to it free here: https://psychospiritualcounseling.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Meditation_Self-Compassion-Break_audio_PSC.mp3. I recommend you use this meditation on a regular basis so you can apply the ideas from this article. Once you memorize it, you can do it anywhere and anytime: before an important meeting, on the bus, as soon as you wake up, etc.

I’ll leave the rest to you now! Let me know how it goes.


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If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in psychotherapy or self-compassion daylongs, feel free to contact me at: tamara@psychospiritualcounseling.net or 510-995-6499. I offer a 20-minute complimentary phone session so we can explore whether we are a good fit.

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