Self-compassion is a skill — and it’s one we all can learn.
More often than not when in “therapist mode,” I often remind my clients that while we’re working hard to unlearn behaviors that no longer serve us, we’re also working on fostering self-compassion. It’s an essential ingredient to the work!
While it can be easy for some of us to be able to feel and express compassion to others, it’s often difficult to extend that same sense of compassion toward our own selves (instead, I see a lot of self-shaming, blaming, and feelings of guilt — all opportunities to practice self-compassion).
But what do I mean by self-compassion? Compassion more broadly is about an awareness of the distress that other people are experiencing and a desire to help. So, to me, self-compassion is taking that same sentiment and applying it to oneself.
Everyone needs support through their journey in healing and growth. And why shouldn’t that support also come from within?
Think of self-compassion, then, not as a destination, but as a tool in your journey.
For example, even in my own self-love journey, I still get moments of anxiety when I don’t do something “perfectly,” or I make a mistake that can start up a shame spiral.
Recently, I wrote down the wrong start time to a first session with a client that caused me to start 30 minutes later than they expected. Yikes.
Upon realizing this, I could feel my heart sink in my chest with a pump of adrenaline and a deep flush of hotness in my cheeks. I totally effed up… and on top of that, I did it in front of a client!
But being aware of these sensations then allowed me to breathe into them to slow them down. I invited myself (silently, of course) to release the feelings of shame and ground into the stability of the session. I reminded myself that I’m human — and it’s more than OK for things to not go according to plan all the time.
From there, I allowed myself to learn from this snafu, too. I was able to create a better system for myself. I also checked in with my client to make sure I could support them, rather than freezing up or shrinking away in shame.
Turns out, they were totally fine, because they could see me first and foremost as a human being, too.
So, how did I learn to slow down in these moments? It helped to start by imagining my experiences being told to me in third person.
That’s because, for most of us, we can imagine offering compassion to someone else a whole lot better than we can ourselves (usually because we’ve practiced the former a whole lot more).
From there, I can then ask myself, “How would I offer compassion to this person?”
And it turns out that being seen, acknowledged, and supported were key parts of the equation. I allowed myself a moment to step back and reflect on what I was seeing in myself, acknowledged the anxiety and guilt coming up, and then I supported myself in taking actionable steps to improve the situation.
With that being said, fostering self-compassion is no small feat. So, before we move forward, I totally want to honor that. The fact that you’re willing and open to even explore what this might mean for you is the most important part.
That’s the part I’m going to invite you to engage with further now with three simple steps.
Many of us who struggle with self-compassion also struggle with what I often call the shame or self-doubt monster, whose voice can pop up at the most unexpected moments.
With that in mind, I’ve named some very common phrases of the shame monster:
- “I’m not good enough.”
- “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
- “Why can’t I do things like other people?”
- “I’m too old to be struggling with these issues.”
- “I should have [fill in the blank]; I could have [fill in the
Just like flexing a muscle or practicing a new skill, cultivating self-compassion requires that we practice “talking back” to this shame monster. With time, the hope is that your internal voice becomes stronger and louder than the voice of self-doubt.
Some examples to try:
- “I’m absolutely worthy and divinely deserving.”
- “I’m allowed to feel however I effing feel — my feelings are valid.”
- “I’m unique in my own wonderful ways while still sharing sacred
interconnected human experiences with many.”
- “I’ll never ever be too old (or too much of anything, for that
matter) to continue cultivating curiosities about my own behaviors and spaces
- “In this moment I am [fill in the blank]; in this moment I feel [fill
in the blank].”
If these don’t feel natural to you, that’s OK! Try opening up a journal and writing some affirmations of your own.
As a somatic therapist who focuses on the mind-body connection, you’ll find that I always invite people to return to their bodies. It’s kind of my thing.
Oftentimes, utilizing drawing or movement as tools for processing can be quite helpful. That’s because they’re allowing us to express ourselves from a space we aren’t always fully conscious of.
With this in mind, gently invite yourself to draw how it felt to feel into the affirmations I offered — perhaps focusing on one that spoke to you deeply. Allow yourself to use any colors that are resonating with you and any medium of creation that’s resonating with you. As you’re doing so, also allow yourself to notice and be curious about how it feels in your body to draw.
Do you notice any areas of tension in your body? Can you try releasing them through your art? How hard or soft are you pressing down with your marker as you’re creating? Can you notice how that feels in your body, and then what it feels like to invite different variations of pressure on the paper?
All of this is information that your body is kind enough to share with you, if you’ll listen. (Yes, I know it sounds a little woo-woo, but you might be surprised by what you find.)
Of course, if creating art isn’t resonating with you, then I’d also invite you to feel into a movement or movements that want or need to be more fully expressed.
For example, when I’m needing to process emotions, I have some go-to yoga poses that titrate between opening and closing that help me feel unstuck. One of them is switching for a few rounds between Happy Baby and Child’s Pose. The other is Cat-Cow, which also allows me to sync my slowing down to my breath.
Compassion for self isn’t always the easiest to cultivate, especially when we can often be our own worst critic. So, finding other ways to access our emotions that take us out of the verbal realm can really help.
When we’re engaging in art therapeutically, it’s about the process, not the result. The same goes for yoga and movement. Allowing yourself to focus on how the process is feeling for you, and detach from how it looks to others, is a part of how we shift into self-compassion.
Whatever it is you’re feeling, no need to judge it. Simply meet yourself wherever you are.
Working toward releasing the judgements and expectations placed upon us by others isn’t easy work, but it’s sacred work. With time it can be a real source of empowerment. You’re healing a wound that many aren’t even aware of; you deserve to celebrate yourself through it all.
With time, as you flex this new muscle, you’ll find that self-compassion is a ready torch, there to lead you through whatever comes your way.
Rachel Otis is a somatic therapist, queer intersectional feminist, body activist, Crohn’s disease survivor, and writer who graduated from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco with her master’s degree in counseling psychology. Rachel believes in providing one the opportunity to continue shifting social paradigms, while celebrating the body in all of its glory. Sessions are available on a sliding scale and via tele-therapy. Reach out to her via email.