A lot of us have a hard time being kind, understanding and patient with ourselves. We know that self-compassion is good for us. But practicing it is a whole other matter. Because when you’ve spent years criticizing and berating yourself, it’s hard to do anything else. Change, of course, is not easy.
In the book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, Linda Graham, MFT, a therapist and mindfulness teacher, shares several exercises that can help us ease into self-compassion. Because practice is key. Here are three exercises, which I found to be especially helpful.
Transforming Kindness for Others into Self-Kindness
Think of a time when it was easy for you to feel compassion for someone else’s pain. As Graham writes, it might be seeing your neighbor who just broke their ankle struggling with their groceries. It might be your cousin losing her luggage when she visits. It might be your 8-year-old collapsing in tears over missing the school bus to her class picnic. It might even be your cat who sprained her hip after jumping down from a sky-high spot.
Imagine the person sitting in front of you (or the pet in your lap). “Notice any warmth, concern, and goodwill arising in your own heart as you sit together. Feel the empathy, compassion, and love flowing from your body, from your heart to hers.”
Next think about a time you were facing a hard situation, big or small. Maybe it was something you did or didn’t do. Maybe it was something that happened last week or years ago. Let yourself feel this pain. Return to the compassionate feelings you had for the other person (or pet). Try to redirect these feelings toward yourself. You might say something like: “May this suffering pass. May things resolve for me. May I feel less upset over time.”
Let yourself absorb the feeling of being understood and nurtured. “Let this compassion settle in your body and help you rewire your sense of yourself in this very moment.”
Finally, reflect on your experience with this exercise. Do you feel a sense of openness or new approach to your pain? Does this approach open up possibilities for changing or resolving your pain or concerns?
If you just couldn’t get into this exercise, have compassion for that, too. (Maybe a self-compassionate guided meditation might be more helpful.)
Accepting Things As They Are
According to Graham, “Acceptance involves no blame or shame: it allows us to honor and accept an entire event and integrate it into our sense of our self.” She shares this valuable approach for creating an accepting narrative for any situation:
This is what happened.
This is what I did to survive it (understandable, even brilliant).
This has been the cost (compassion makes it safe enough to even look at that).
This is what I have learned (a new narrative of self that allows us to live with, even be proud of, ourselves).
This is how I can respond to life now (be resilient going forward).
You might pick a few situations you’re struggling to accept, and journal about these statements.
Writing Letters about Your Inner Critic
Write down a typical comment or litany of comments, which your inner critic spews – the words that make you feel terrible about yourself. You’re disgusting. How could you think anyone would love you? Only you could make such a stupid mistake! Who do you think you are? You’re pathetic.
Next write a letter to your friend about this comment and your struggles with it. Describe what tends to trigger the comment, and your usual reactions upon hearing it: your body sensations, feelings, thoughts and any fears of it being true. Also, include “your wishes and desires for understanding and support in dealing with this repetitive pattern.”
Now put yourself in your friend’s shoes. Write a second letter from your friend to yourself. Write it in your friend’s voice, and convey empathy for your pain. Convey your love and acceptance for yourself exactly as you are, imperfections included (which simply make you human). Also, include any helpful suggestions. “[B]e sure to include her care for your well-being and her wish that you find your way to wise action and relief from this suffering.”
Put this second letter aside for a while. When you reread it, allow yourself to absorb the compassion, which you’ve shown “for yourself to yourself.”
Finally, write a third letter. This one is a thank-you letter to your friend. Thank them for their support. Note what you’ve learned from their letter, along with any new self-care practices you’ll try based on their encouragement.
These exercises may feel unnatural or even silly. But try to keep an open mind. I like this quote from Louise L. Hay, author and publisher of Hay House: “You have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
So try these exercises (or maybe others you find online or in a book), and simply see what happens. But remember practice makes progress. (And therapy can help.)