How to Be More Self-Compassionate

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

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Every time I start a new workout regimen, I can’t seem to stick with it for more than two weeks. Even though I know for a fact that exercise is good for me, and I actually enjoy doing it, I always find myself returning to old habits just a few weeks later.

Why do I keep sabotaging myself? Every time it happens, I feel like a failure who can’t accomplish anything in life. Sometimes I get so fed up and angry with myself that I completely give up on all of my healthy habits.

Of course, this only makes me feel worse. Once I’ve realized what I’ve done, I use it as fuel to get back into strict, rigid habits—including long bouts of moderate- to high-intensity forms of exercise.

Before long, I’ve given up again. And the cycle continues. I just can’t keep it up—and I hate myself for it.

Meet Your Inner Critic

Does the story above sound familiar to you? Your story may center around something else—perhaps a relationship or your career—but the theme remains the same, and that theme is self-criticism.

We criticize ourselves for two main reasons. First, our brains evolved to solve problems, which helps explain why we tend to fixate on them. Second, we’ve been raised or influenced by others to believe certain things about ourselves, or treat ourselves in certain ways.

Parents, older siblings, teachers, bullies, and society in general all impact how we learn to think about ourselves. In many cases, and even among those of us who’ve had supportive upbringings, we learn to believe that we’re lacking something—or that we’re not good enough.

As a result, we find ourselves unconsciously refusing to accept and embrace certain parts of who we are. We think we need to change ourselves to become better, and most of us do this the only way we know how—by criticizing and punishing ourselves.

Why Self-Compassion is Key

Thoughts are powerful. Understanding this, and realizing the power thoughts have to shape your life, is really the first step in moving toward a more self-compassionate frame of mind.

Self-compassion is a fairly recent idea, described as a way of relating to yourself through kindness, mindfulness, and a sense of common humanity. Think of it like treating yourself the way you’d treat a close friend or family member.

When you’re self-compassionate, you’re not “giving in” to failure—you’re essentially acknowledging your flaws in addition to your strengths. Perhaps more importantly, you’re grounding yourself in knowing that your successes and failures lie in the common shared human experiences of vulnerability, imperfection, and mortality.

In fact, research has shown that self-compassion is associated with less stress and depressive symptoms and may indirectly improve physical health. Much of this likely comes down to becoming more self-aware in order to activate self-compassion.

Being self-critical doesn’t work because it never brings you closer to who you want to become. You’re too focused on self-rejection to leave space for self-growth. 

To grow and transform yourself as a person, you have to be willing to accept yourself as a whole. And the most practical way to do it is through self-compassion.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

Changing our thoughts is easier said than done—especially when it comes to negative thoughts. Negative thinking patterns are some of the most difficult patterns to break, but self-compassion can be a useful tool for changing them.

Here’s what you can do to start.

Forgive Accept Yourself

Past mistakes and failures don’t define all of you. The key to accepting yourself is understanding that you are a human being who has made mistakes at times like everyone. We can start to recognize there are really only two mistakes that matter in life—not trying and not learning.

Your past only has the power you give it. What really matters is the fact that you’re here now, able to move forward. If your past holds regrets, acknowledge them and shift awareness to the present.

Try this if accepting yourself feels difficult:

  1. Take some time alone to sit with yourself and feel your emotions.
  2. Name those emotions.
  3. Identify your strengths, your values, and what you have learned from past mistakes.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Talk yourself through what you would do differently knowing what you know now.
  5. Optionally, you can write a letter to yourself containing your answers to the above four questions, read it out loud to yourself, and then destroy the letter by crumpling it up, tearing it up, or burning it (safely, of course).

Notice Negative Self-Talk

Many people struggle with stopping negative self-talk because they’ve been listening to their inner critic for years without realizing it. The first step to stopping it involves becoming mindful of when it’s happening.

You can do this by:

1. Heightening your level of awareness during negative self-talk. To begin, you’ll want to work on noticing when your internal voice has turned critical. Does this happen in certain situations? Certain times of day? With certain people? You don’t have to do anything with it—you don’t even have to work on changing it at this point. The simple act of noticing these thoughts, examining them, and realizing that they’re only thoughts, not facts, is enough to spark a shift.

2. Identifying patterns in your negative self-talk. A big chunk of our thoughts are repeated on a day-to-day basis. Work towards noticing certain statements you often say to yourself, like “I can’t do this.” Are there certain negative conclusions you consistently make when dealing with common situations?

3. Exploring how these negative thoughts are making you feel. Are you angry, sad, or frustrated as a result of thinking them? Identifying these associations will help you understand the relationship between your negative internal voice and your emotions.

Have Constructive Conversations with Yourself

Your inner critic isn’t the only voice you have. It only seems that way because you’ve been hearing it and listening to it for so long that it overpowers everything else.

You can learn to shift your inner critic to a much more understanding, supportive, and positive voice by identifying and engaging with it. The goal is to challenge what your inner critic is telling you.

You can do this by:

1. Talking back to negative thoughts by questioning their validity. For example, if you think “I’m such a horrible writer,” you might think about this more deeply and then respond with, “No I’m not, I just had the expectation that I’d be published before my first draft was complete.” Or, if you think, “I’m so weak for not being able to do this task,” you might realize, “That’s silly, many people struggle with this and it’s okay that I’m one of them.”

2. Asking yourself questions about your value as a person. What memories do you have of solving a problem? Or helping someone? Or applying your skills? Questions like these can help shift your perspective. Try writing answers to these questions on index cards and keeping them in your pocket, or writing answers that you can easily remember when negative self-talk strikes.

3. Using positive affirmations to reinforce the direction you want to go in your life. This is an effective way of adding a different voice to your day-to-day thoughts and conversations with yourself, which will make it harder for your inner critic to take over. Examples include: “I can do this,” or “Everything will be okay,” or “Whatever I’m facing, I can handle it.”

Be Grateful

Gratitude is a simple thing you can do anytime, anywhere to shift your inner voice away from negative self-talk, even if all you do is appreciate yourself for waking up on time or remembering to put your car keys in your handbag. Gratitude is also something that, when done regularly, has been scientifically proven to make us happier people.

Try this out:

1. Write down at least 3 things you’re grateful for every day. These can be big things like your children, your job, or your new car, and they can also be small things like the mail that came today or the person who let you into the other traffic lane earlier that day.

2. If you find yourself unable to feel naturally grateful, try looking at the situation from a different point of view, such as by saying something like, “This is so hard right now, but I’m grateful that at least X happened.” Reminding yourself that you’re not alone and that others have experienced similar things can also help to put a situation into perspective.

3. During times when it’s very difficult to be grateful, look for the lesson. Sometimes we get so caught up in the negative aspects of a situation, we forget that there’s more to discover. We forget that we have skills and abilities to get us through—even if we do it imperfectly. Ask yourself how you’ll grow from this experience and become a better version of yourself in the future because of it.

Be Kind to Yourself

Your inner critic was created by you, for you. It’s made up of all the negative thoughts and doubts that have held you back in life so far. It’s trying to be a protective voice and keep you from getting hurt again.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t still hurt you. Take this as extra motivation to be understanding toward yourself when you talk back to your inner critic. Challenging its thoughts is about changing the way you think, not trying to shut off thoughts or lower your level of intuition.

If you find it difficult to deal with your own negative self-talk and it’s continuing to affect your everyday life, you may benefit from working with a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, is a very popular and effective form of therapy that involves identifying negative thoughts and challenging them.

Browse our directory of therapists to find someone who can help you take control of your inner critic and start treating yourself with the kindness, compassion, and love that you deserve.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elise Burley

Elise Burley is part of the therapist.com editorial team and has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience on a variety health topics. Over the years, she has written for several health-related ecommerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not writing, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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