Articles March 7, 2021

Take a Self-Compassion Break

Kristin Neff

"You’re so stupid! I can't believe you said that!" Would you talk this way to a friend, or even to a stranger for that matter? Of course not. (Or at least I hope not!) It’s natural for us to try to be kind to the people we care about in our lives. We let them know it’s okay to be human when they fail. We reassure them of our respect and support when they’re feeling bad about themselves. We comfort them when they’re going through hard times. In other words, most of us are very good at being understanding, kind, and compassionate towards others. But how many of us offer that same compassion to ourselves?

I first learned about self-compassion during my last year of graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. It was a very fragile point in my life. I was wallowing in the aftermath of a messy divorce, and I was worried about being able to finish my PhD and whether I would be able to get a job if I did finish. I decided to learn how to meditate at a local Buddhist sangha, hoping it would lessen my stress. To my surprise, on the very first night I went, the woman leading the group talked at length about the need for us to be kind and compassionate to ourselves. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. I tried being gentler and more supportive toward myself and almost immediately started to feel less overwhelmed.

After I got a faculty position at the University of Texas at Austin, I decided I wanted to conduct research on self-compassion. To do so, however, I knew I needed to start by carefully defining what self-compassion actually was. I read many books on the topic, but especially important influences were A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield and Loving-Kindness by Sharon Salzberg. Based on my reading, I decided to define self-compassion as being comprised of three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with ourselves rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. Instead of taking a cold “stiff-upper-lip” approach in times of suffering, self-kindness offers soothing and comfort to the self. Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail and make mistakes. It connects our own flawed condition to the shared human condition so that we can take greater perspective towards our own personal shortcomings and difficulties. Mindfulness involves being aware of our painful feelings in a clear and balanced manner so that we neither ignore nor obsess about disliked aspects of ourselves or our life. The three together combine to create a self-compassionate frame of mind. Self-compassion can be extended towards the self when suffering occurs through no fault of our own—when the external circumstances of life are simply too painful or difficult to bear—or else when our suffering stems from our own mistakes, failures or personal inadequacies.

In our achievement-oriented society, which glorifies perfectionistic striving, self-compassion is not particularly valued. Luckily, this is beginning to change, in part due to the fast-growing body of research demonstrating that self-compassion is key to living a happy, healthy life. It turns out that self-compassionate people are much less likely to be anxious, depressed, and stressed on a day-to-day basis than those who are self-critical. They're also more optimistic and satisfied with their lives, and better able to cope effectively with adversity. It makes sense. When our inner voice continually criticizes and berates us, we end up feeling worthless, incompetent and insecure, and can end up in negative cycles of self-sabotage and self-harm. However, when our inner voice plays the role of a supportive friend, we feel safe and accepted enough to see ourselves clearly and to make the changes needed for us to be healthier and happier.

Buddhist practices like lovingkindness meditation have traditionally been used to increase self-compassion. While effective, this type of meditation focuses on a variety of targets in addition to the self, and does not specifically focus on personal suffering (when our loving-kindness is often less available). For this reason, my colleague Chris Germer and I have developed an eight-week empirically supported program called Mindful Self-Compassion that is specifically designed to teach self-compassion skills for use in daily life. Here is an exercise called “The Self-Compassion Break,” which can help remind us of the three components of self-compassion when we’re struggling in some way.

  • Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress, such as a health problem, a relationship problem, or perhaps a work problem.
    • Can you feel discomfort in your body as you bring this difficulty to mind?

  • Now, try saying to yourself: “This is a moment of suffering.”
    • That’s mindfulness. Perhaps other words speak to you better. Some options are: "This hurts," or "This is really hard right now."

  • Now, try saying to yourself: “Suffering is a part of life.”
    • That’s common humanity. Other options include: "I’m not alone," or "We all struggle in our lives."

  • Now, put your hands over your heart, feeling the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. You can also put your hand on any other place on your body that feels soothing and comforting like your belly or your face.
    • Then try saying to yourself: “May I be kind to myself.”

  • You may want to see if there are any particular words of kindness and support that you need to hear right now as you’re going through this difficult situation. Some options may be: "I accept myself as I am, a work in progress,” or “I'm here for you darling.”
    • If you’re having difficulty finding the right words, imagine that a dear friend or loved one is having the same problem as you. What would you say to this person? What simple message would you like to deliver to your friend, heart-to-heart? Now, see if you can offer the same message to yourself.

Kristin Neff

Kristin Neff

Guest Teacher

Kristin Neff is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She pioneered the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on the construct almost twenty years ago. She also co-developed the empirically-supported Mindful Self-Compassion program, which is taught worldwide.