Cultivating Self-Compassion

Self-compassion begins with the relationship we have with ourselves.

Most of us are steadfast in protecting the people we love the most. If you mess with my husband, sister, best friend or child, you are messing with me. If we can be this loving and guarded when it comes to those around us, then why is it so difficult for us to extend that same level of kindness and love to ourselves?

The relationship we have with ourselves is what we project in the world around us. Self-compassion is rooted in how we view our mistakes and failures. The opposite of self-compassion is self-criticism, which shows up in the hard judgements we hold against ourselves.

Let’s have a little lesson in biology to demonstrate the distinction between self-compassion vs. self-criticism. The human body has two components to our nervous system: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.

Sympathetic Nervous System: Self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system. This is the fight, flight or freeze system that releases copious amounts of cortisol and adrenaline into our blood, simultaneously raising our heart rate and blood pressure. This system is the one that makes you jump when you notice a stick in your peripheral vision and your brain processes, in a split second, that it could be a dangerous snake. Early in humanity, this system was necessary for survival. With the comforts that we have in our society today, it is not needed as much as it was early in our evolution, yet, it fires at a higher rate today than ever before. Cortisol releases sugar into your blood, providing energy for fighting or running. With the constant pressure and stress that we place on ourselves on a daily basis, majority of the human race is functioning under the sympathetic nervous system too often, leaving cortisol levels at a constant high. Living with cortisol levels unchecked can lead to diabetes, weight gain, suppressed immunity, digestive problems and heart disease. We do not need this system in the manner we once did, it is an antiquated system that should only be of use for survival. We have somehow managed to trick our bodies into thinking that not meeting a deadline, traffic or missing a family function is survival. We are releasing cortisol in times that are not life or death and it is literally taking us closer to death. Unfortunately, most Americans spend a good portion of their days controlled by this system.

Parasympathetic Nervous System: Self-compassion activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It is the system responsible for rest and digestion. This is the system that makes us feel balanced, and safe, and at the same time lowers our heart rate and blood pressure. The longer we spend with the parasympathetic system in charge, the healthier we are. Being mindful of your breath, taking deep inhales and full exhales, can activate this system. This is why learning to breathe during stressful situations is so important. Operating from this system promotes health and longevity.

As with everything else, if we want self-compassion and less stress to show up in our everyday life, it has to become a practice. Something that we strive for every single day. We have to spend our entire lives with ourselves. It is the one relationship in which we are certain disconnection will never occur. Doesn’t it make sense that we spend energy cultivating this relationship?

Self-Compassion Qualities

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are three behaviors demonstrated by people with high levels of self-compassion:

1. They do not judge themselves for perceived mistakes and failures, rather, they meet themselves with kindness.

2. They realize that mistakes and failures are inherent in every human, it is a. common ground that we all share.

3. They do not allow negative beliefs to hijack their thoughts when failures and mistakes occur. Sure, go ahead and feel bad for a moment, but do not ruminate. Release the negative thoughts and move on.

Benefits of Developing Self Compassion

  • We tend to more easily adopt a growth mindset.
  • Enhances our self-worth.
  • Increased motivation.
  • Boosts happiness and willingness to participate in life.
  • Fuels empowerment and inner strength.
  • Less active cortisol and decreased stress.
  • It allows us to extend compassion to others.

In order to cultivate self-compassion in our lives we have to let go of self-criticism. It starts with the realization that we are all humans, doing the very best we can. Understand our common humanity and know that every person under the sun has mistakes and failures, what differentiates us is the way that we treat ourselves. Do we forgive ourselves or do we harshly judge ourselves? The easiest way to begin cultivating self-compassion is to treat yourself as you would your best friend, partner or child.

Ways to Cultivate Self-Compassion

  • Forgive yourself for your mistakes. Do not live in the past, forgive and come back to the present moment.
  • Write yourself a letter. Imagine what your best friend would say to you and write it down. Come back and read it to yourself later.
  • Notice your self-criticism. Ask yourself, what would you say to your child if they said these things to themselves. Speak kindly to yourself and about yourself.
  • Make time to do things that you enjoy. You deserve to have joyful, creative experiences. And, this is another way to keep the cortisol levels low.
  • Broaden your view and realize that we share a common humanity with others. We all fail. We all make mistakes. Do not judge or isolate yourself.
  • Accept who you are, flaws and all. We didn’t get to choose the life we were born into. However, by accepting the present moment fully, we can create the life we want.
  • Mediate. There will never be a moment when I do not recommend meditation. Consider it less of a spiritual practice and more of a Jedi mind-trick. Train your mind to induce calm rather that chaos. Mediation creates a pause, or a space, in your thought process where peace and love can grow. This will certainly loosen the grip of self-critical thoughts.

Resources for Cultivating Self-Compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has been studying self-compassion for more than two decades. Her website is the best recourse for any and all things self-compassion. She has created many books, workbooks, exercises and guided meditations to help us understand and cultivate self-compassion in our lives. Her free exercises can be found here: Self-Compassion Exercises

As noted by Positive, here is a list of the 9 Best Books on Self-Compassion.



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Natalie Greer

Natalie Greer

Well-being curator + mom + yogi + registered nurse + board-certified nurse health coach — perpetually attempting to capture humanity with language.