Three Ways to Cultivate Self-Compassion | Part 3: Practice Mindful Acceptance

Iris Cai
Published in
6 min readJun 7, 2021
Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash

Mindfulness has been found to be one of the key elements to cultivating self-compassion¹. Over the last three decades, mindfulness has become mainstream in Western culture, been widely adopted in numerous therapeutic modalities, and supported by scientific evidence².

Some people think that they are “not good at” mindfulness because they tend to get distracted when practicing mindfulness meditation. In fact, mindfulness is about our relationship with our body sensations, thoughts, and feelings, rather than thoughtlessness: by observing our sensations, thoughts, and feelings as they occur, without denying or suppressing them, mindfulness can help you cultivate a non-judgemental and compassionate state of mind. Although mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, it is not synonymous with meditation. It can be a state of mind that can be practiced anywhere, anytime.

Imagine the opposite first. Being judgemental and critical is like carrying a chip on our shoulders. When it is directed to ourselves, the sharp edge of the chip can keep hurting us, causing us to tiptoe around our lives and avoid making mistakes or taking risks. We would probably have a hard time bouncing back from setbacks, too. When directed at others, we can be like hedgehogs who are hard to be around, intimidating and hard to connect with.

On the contrary, when we have a non-judgemental and compassionate state of mind, we can be more open, curious, and accepting of our experiences, especially difficult ones, creating space for us to consciously choose how to respond to them effectively.

In the story I’m about to tell you, observe how I applied mindfulness when some difficult emotions arose and how that process “melted” the chip in my shoulder and kept my “inner hedgehog” at bay.

At one point in my career, a strategy I had long been championing was finally approved and I was encouraged to pursue it further with a team of colleagues. Although it seemed like the obvious emotion to feel was one of elation and pride, I felt unsettled. In fact, the idea of discussing it with my colleagues made me feel sick.

I was surprised and quite judgemental of myself. “Shouldn’t you be grateful about it? What else do you want?”, I criticized myself. After unpacking this “weird phenomenon” with my therapist, I realized what I felt was in fact anger, sadness, and disappointment that resulted from not being acknowledged every time I proposed my idea via email to my leaders before. I also learned that I had jumped into the conclusion that my idea may be challenged when discussed within a larger group next, which was more of a defence mechanism rather than a fact.

Being able to explore my thoughts and feelings with curiosity rather than the judgement I originally held opened up space for me to choose how I wanted to respond to the upcoming meeting with my colleagues. That acceptance was like opening the lid of a pressure cooker — it let out the pressure that had been building inside me and allowed my negative emotions to “mutate” into ones that are more neutral, or even positive.

Feeling more “level-headed”, I found that times had changed — I was given the go-ahead on my strategy so it was my turn to take the lead and champion it. With that in mind, I decided to approach that meeting with open-mindedness and curiosity for my colleagues’ input, and patience for potential misunderstandings. To help me manage my anxiety having to explain a new concept to a big group, I invested two hours preparing a strategy presentation and thought through how I saw that strategy unfold. On the day of the meeting, I reminded myself again of how I wanted to feel right before going into the meeting, which ended up being a great success.

This relatively insignificant incident I shared illustrates how accepting our negative emotions mindfully can help us live our lives or perform more effectively. But what if we are dealing with something much more difficult, such as a big mistake at work caused by our negligence, or losing a loved one? What if we don’t have easy access to a therapist, a coach, or a friend who is a caring and open-minded lister? What if we are not comfortable sharing how we are feeling with others yet?

If that’s the case for you, consider exploring the steps below. Proposed by Christopher Germer, a world leader in mindfulness and self-compassion, these stages of acceptance could guide you as you “dip your toes” in experiencing any difficult experiences³.

  1. Aversion: This is when we are most “mindless”. You may either avoid your difficult emotions, or you may ruminate, i.e. over-engage, with those emotions. This was how I felt when I started feeling unsettled after I was given the go-ahead to pursue the strategy I advocated. I was resisting how I felt and told myself that “I shouldn’t feel that way”.
  2. Curiosity: You are willing to face the discomfort in this stage. Perhaps this is when you explore the story that you’ve been telling yourself (i.e. your thoughts). Labeling your thoughts is a great way to create distance between your disempowering thoughts and your behavioural choices⁴. This was what I got to do when discussing my experience with my therapist.
  3. Tolerance: After you create a safe container for yourself, patiently enduring the discomfort can help you stand up to your difficult emotions. Remember to pay attention to any body sensations that arise as you feel these emotions.
  4. Allowing: In this step, learn to loosen the grip of your feelings. When negative thoughts arrive, acknowledge them and then pay attention to your breathing.
  5. Befriending: To accept what is happening, even the unpleasant, learn to acknowledge that as humans, unpleasant experiences just come “in the same package” as pleasant experiences. Sometimes they are like two sides of the same coin: The bliss of being in love and the heartache from breakups or arguments. The pride of achievements and the disappointment from setbacks. According to Kristine Neff, recognizing that suffering is part of our common humanity and that we are not alone in this is another key element of self-compassion¹.

It is also important to note that when what we have to deal with is much more significant, we may need to circle around in stages 3–5 a bit longer. If that’s the case for you, be patient. Notice your resistance and perhaps release it by imagining that you are loosening the lid of an imaginary pressure cooker.

Buddhist teacher, Shinzen Young, summarizes the dynamics between how we respond to negative experiences in our lives with this formula: Suffering = Pain x Resistance⁴. Our pain, such as the anger, disappointment, or anxiety we feel, is inevitable in our existence as humans, and is to be acknowledged rather than avoided. What we have control over is how we experience it: Do we resist by ruminating over it? By blaming ourselves? Or by regretting things we’ve done or have not done?

Practicing self-compassion holds the key to managing our resistance to the unpleasant in life. By practicing mindfulness, we can face our difficult emotions with kindness and acceptance. By recognizing our disempowering thoughts, we give ourselves the opportunities to re-author the stories of our lives. By restoring our relationship with ourselves, we can start to see the strengths within us and trust our ability to rise back up.

Thank you for reading to the end of this article. I hope this three-part series has offered you useful perspectives and tools. May you travel through your journey in life with loving-kindness towards yourself.

Get in touch

Please reach out to me if you’d like to support on cultivating self-compassion or have questions or comments on the topic.

Related posts on how to cultivate self-compassion:


  1. Self-compassion. (n.d.). The three elements of self-compassion.
  2. Williams, J. M. G., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(01), 1–18.
  3. Germer, C. K. (2009). T he mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.
  4. Baltzell A., Summers J. (2017) The Power of Acceptance & Tolerance (Module 2, Part B). In: The Power of Mindfulness. Springer, Cham.

Originally published at on June 7, 2021.



Iris Cai

Changemaker, storyteller, & positive psychology nerd, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives.