Self-Compassion: What It Is and How to Do It

Self-compassion is the practice of being kind to yourself, acknowledging your imperfections without judgement, and understanding that everyone experiences periods of struggle. It integrates self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness into your life, fostering a healthier relationship with yourself and longer-term emotional resilience.


Self-compassion begins with treating oneself with the same kindness and understanding that we readily offer to our friends. It involves acknowledging our imperfections, flaws, and mistakes without harsh judgement. This can be difficult, as many of us have learned to be critical of ourselves in general, but especially in response to errors. 


One way to start cultivating self-kindness is to focus on the common humanity of mistakes and struggles. Understanding that human fallibility and suffering is a universal experience is a vital component of self-compassion. We are not alone in our struggles and errors; acknowledging this shared humanity helps us connect with others and ourselves more deeply.


Mindfulness is also a critical part of developing self-kindness. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of the present moment without judgement. In the context of self-compassion, it means acknowledging our feelings and experiences without suppressing, exaggerating, or judging them.


Why self-compassion is critical to well-being


Self-compassion isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a vital tool for personal growth and mental well-being. Research shows that practising self-compassion boosts motivation, confidence, and emotional strength. It also reduces anxiety and depression, offering a lifeline during tough times.


Self-compassion balances out our negative self-talk.

Negative self-talk, or the habit of constantly judging and criticising ourselves, can have a profound impact on our mental well-being. When we engage in negative self-talk, it’s like we’re carrying around a heavy burden. This constant self-critique can wear down our self-esteem and self-worth. We end up feeling inadequate, as if we’re never good enough.


For some, negative self-talk can contribute to and worsen anxiety or depression. Self-criticism and these emotions feed on each other, creating a never-ending cycle of self-doubt and self-blame. The constant self-criticism amplifies feelings of anxiety and sadness, making them difficult to escape. For some, this cycle can lead to the development of the diagnosable mental health conditions known as anxiety and depression.


This critical inner voice and the negative feelings it prompts also take a physical toll. Our brains perceive self-criticism as a threat and trigger our body’s alarm system, putting us in a state of perpetual stress. Our body releases stress hormones, like cortisol, which are designed for fight-or-flight situations. But since we’re not actually facing physical danger, and the ‘threat’ (self-criticism) never resolves, the stress becomes chronic. Chronic stress is proven to damage physical health, as our bodies wear out from the never-ending battle with our own critical thoughts.

Over time, the continuous stress caused by negative self-talk can lead to cardiovascular problems, weakened immunity, and other health challenges.


Self-compassion helps preserve our mental and physical health.


By contrast to negative self-talk, compassionate self-talk has significant and positive effects on our life, both mentally and physically.


Specifically, self-compassion makes us emotionally resilient. Imagine you’re facing a tough challenge – it could be a work project, a personal setback, or just ‘one of those days.’ Now, picture self-compassion as your trusty sidekick. Instead of beating yourself up for your mistakes, it whispers in your ear, “Hey, it’s okay. We all mess up sometimes. Let’s learn from this and get better.” It’s like having your very own coach for life’s hurdles, helping you grow stronger with each step.

Self-compassion teaches us to approach setbacks and challenges with self-kindness and understanding. It encourages a mindset focused on growth rather than self-blame.


Self-compassion also lowers our stress levels. Imagine this: you’ve been lugging around that backpack full of stress, it’s making your shoulders ache, and it feels like the weight of the world. But then, you discover self-compassion. It’s like taking a deep, soothing breath and saying, “You know what? I don’t need to carry this load all the time.”


So, you gently set down that heavy backpack of stress and self-doubt. Your body says, “Thank you!” And you find your balance again. Self-compassion is your way of saying, “I deserve a break, and I’m going to give myself that break.” Your body relaxes, and you feel more in control and at peace.

When you engage in self-compassion practice, it reduces the physiological stress response, and instead fosters the body’s supportive bond response, leading to a more balanced and relaxed state of being.


Over time, those who practise self-compassion tend to have higher self-esteem, improved overall well-being, and greater life satisfaction.


Who self-compassion is for


Self-compassion is a helpful practice for literally everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from; self-compassion is a universal friend, ready to provide support and emotional resilience when you need it most.

Self-compassion is not limited to any specific group; it’s applicable to people from all ages and all walks of life. It is an inclusive practice that knows no boundaries. Whether you’re a student battling exam stress, a professional dealing with workplace demands, a parent balancing family responsibilities, or someone confronting personal trials, self-compassion can provide support and resilience during these moments of need.


When you should practise self-compassion


Self-compassion, with practice and over time, becomes an approach to yourself and to life. It becomes a mindset that changes your relationship with yourself and the world.


But self-compassion can be especially powerful in certain situations, such as when:


Coping with failure or setbacks: In the face of failure or unexpected setbacks, self-compassion provides a lifeline. It’s like a reassuring voice saying, “It’s okay, we all stumble sometimes. Let’s learn from this and grow.” It helps you avoid the self-blame game and encourages a positive, forward-thinking perspective. 


Dealing with criticism and judgement: We all face criticism, whether it comes from others or that little inner critic inside our heads. Self-compassion empowers us to respond in a healthy way. It’s like personal armor against self-doubt and negativity. Instead of letting criticism bring you down, it prevents us from falling into the trap of self-doubt and instead encourages a healthy evaluation of the feedback received. 


Navigating stressful situations: Life inevitably brings its share of challenging and stressful moments. Self-compassion acts as a stabilising force during these times, offering emotional support and reducing anxiety. It’s a reminder that we are not alone in our struggles and that it’s okay to acknowledge our feelings and seek comfort in self-kindness.


During difficult periods and moments of self-doubt, self-compassion provides the emotional resources needed to face adversity with resilience, self-love, and a sense of shared humanity.


How to practise self-compassion


While self-compassion may come naturally to some, many of us need to learn and nurture this valuable skill. The good news is that it’s entirely teachable.


Harvard psychologist Christopher Germer, in his book “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” outlines five avenues to integrate self-compassion into life, encompassing physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual approaches. Numerous experts have also proposed a range of methods to cultivate self-compassion. Here are a few practical ways:


Comfort your body: Treat your body kindly. Eat nourishing food and prioritise rest. A simple walk can work wonders. In fact, any action that enhances our physical well-being is an act of self-compassion.


Write a letter to yourself: Reflect on a past situation that has caused you pain, such as a breakup, job loss, or a presentation that didn’t go as planned. Write a letter to yourself, focusing on the situation without placing blame. Acknowledge and validate your feelings.


Offer self-encouragement: When adversity strikes, think about what you would say to a dear friend in the same situation. Extend these same compassionate responses to yourself, reinforcing the idea that you deserve kindness and support.


Practise mindfulness: Engage in mindfulness practices that involve observing your thoughts, feelings, and actions without judgement, suppression, or denial. When you face yourself in the mirror and have reservations, accept both the positive and negative aspects with a compassionate mindset. 



The way we communicate with ourselves has a profound impact on our overall well-being. When our inner dialogue is critical and harsh, it can lead to heightened stress, increased vulnerability to anxiety and depression, and a pervasive sense of insecurity. But the practice of self-compassion offers a powerful antidote to these negative effects. Research into self-compassion consistently demonstrates that individuals who engage in this practice, embracing its core elements, experience less risk of mental health challenges and exhibit greater resilience.



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Raksha Rajesh (M.Sc., M.Phil., CRR No. A80195) is a clinical psychologist licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). She has 5+ years of experience in helping people from diverse backgrounds build skills to understand and manage their emotions.

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