You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who associates compassion and kindness with negative effects. In fact, kindness is backed by very solid science (dubbed the "Mother Teresa effect")—it has both mental and physical health benefits. But what about self-compassion? What about being kind to yourself? Yes, we generally associate each with positivity and warmth; putting it into practice, though, that's a more difficult nut to crack.
It's something Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of self-compassion and associate professor in human development at the University of Texas at Austin, has dedicated her entire career to: "The last 10 years I've focused on teaching people how to be more self-compassionate," she shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "Because it's not enough to say this is a good thing. How do we teach people to do it?"
Class is in session: Below, Neff offers a few pointers on how to really be kind to yourself—and what you may be doing wrong:
1. Check in.
"You can't even begin the process without awareness," says Neff. Meaning: If you aren't aware of your thoughts and feelings, how can you even begin to transform them into warmth and kindness?
That said, the very first step is to check in: "How do you speak to yourself?" Neff poses. "Are you supportive? Are you warm? Are you caring? Do you value your own needs? Are you saying 'yes' all the time to others to the point where it's actually draining you?" Consider it a mindfulness technique to assess your needs and where you would like to start. (It may even be helpful to scribble down your thoughts into a journal.)
2. Acknowledge your pain.
The second step, says Neff, is to acknowledge your pain—value it, even. "You need to be willing to be present with pain," she explains. "If you shove it down, if you pretend it's not there, you can't be compassionate."
See, when you ignore the pain or beat yourself up for it, that's when it can overwhelm you, which can cause even more pain and anxiety. You need that perspective, says Neff, to step outside of yourself and say, "Hey, you're having a hard time. How can I help?" Only then can you break that vicious cycle. "When you treat yourself with kindness, warmth, and support, you don't get so overwhelmed by that pain," she adds.
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3. Find a sense of common humanity.
On a similar note, Neff explains that it's helpful to acknowledge that pain is a common human experience. Because valuing your pain can easily tip over into a self-pity mindset: "[Self-pity] is actually not very healthy," Neff says. "Even though you may care for yourself, it's a very self-focused stance."
That's why she recommends pointing out a sense of common humanity—acknowledging that life is difficult for everyone and no one is perfect. What this does is create a sense of connectedness, and it ultimately differentiates self-compassion from self-pity.
4. Honor your anger.
It seems counterintuitive: How can you be kind to yourself and angry? But according to Neff, there's a difference between constructive and destructive anger. "If you're ruminating in anger, if you're lost in it, it's causing harm," she says. "But if you're accepting your anger and grateful for it, it can actually be very empowering."
Again, the kicker here is mindfulness: If you reflect on why you're feeling angry and get to the root of those thoughts and emotions, you can better understand how to deal with them productively rather than imploding with fury.
5. Treat yourself like you would treat a friend.
According to Neff, most of us are way more compassionate to others than we are to ourselves. So her to-do is simple: "Ask yourself, 'How do I treat my good friends when they're feeling bad about themselves?' And then ask the same question for yourself, 'What do I say to myself internally?'" If you have two wildly different responses, well, you may have your answer.
She continues, "For some people, it's really eye-opening to see, 'Wow, [if] I say to my friend what I say to myself, I don't think they would be my friend anymore.'" For some, it's the friendly shove they need to treat themselves with kindness and grace—again, when you're aware of your emotions and how you act upon them, that's when real change tends to happen.
Treating yourself with kindness seems straightforward, but it actually takes some work to truly master. At the end of the day, Neff notes, "remember you aren't alone, and try to be aware of what's happening. Once you cultivate that mindset, things immediately start to shift."
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