The Skeptic’s Guide to Self-Compassion

A lot of people hear terms like self-compassion, self-love, Be kind to yourself, etc. and think to themselves:

Self-compassion? What a bunch of self-indulgent nonsense!

And I totally get it.

Because prior to working as a therapist, I would have thought something very similar—that ideas like self-compassion were just vacuous phrases and verbal placebos that therapists and gurus threw around to make paying customers superficially feel better.

But here’s the thing that made me reconsider my opinion once I started working with people in therapy every day:

A lot of people are absolute jerks to themselves.

And the more I worked as a therapist, the more I started to see how destructive this lack of self-compassion was in the long run: From chronic irritability and broken relationships to major issues with lost productivity and procrastination, our lack of self-compassion is devastating in almost every aspect of life.

I wrote this guide to explain what self-compassion is in a practical, straightforward way. But more importantly, I wrote it specifically for people who are a little (or a lot) skeptical of the notion of self-compassion in the first place.

If that’s you—the self-compassion skeptic—consider this article as a challenge: I bet that by the end of this guide I can convince you that building self-compassion is a far more practical and useful skill that you realize.

And if you’re not a self-compassion skeptic… Well, I assume you know someone who is so feel free to share far and wide 🙂

Table of Contents

Feel free to use the links below to jump to a specific section:


What Is Self-Compassion? A Brief, No-Fluff Explanation

There are lots of technical (and usually long-winded) definitions of self-compassion out there.

And while some of them are technically very good, they often have the effect of turning people off to the whole concept because they’re so convoluted.

So let me give you a simple, down-to-earth way to think about self-compassion:

Self-compassion means that when times are tough you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.

Here’s an example to illustrate…

Jeff the Failure

I had a client once (let’s call him Jeff) who came to a session one time telling me how he felt like a failure because he just got laid off from his dream job that he had worked really hard to get.

For the last week, he’d been replaying mistakes he’d made over the last two years. His self-talk was hypercritical and judgmental, saying things to himself like “If you weren’t so lazy, you’d still have the job.” Or “Now people are gonna think I can’t handle high-level work and I’ll never get a good job again.”

Toward the end of our session, I had Jeff do a little exercise: I asked him to imagine one of his good friends had just been fired from their job. I had him imagine that they were saying similarly negative and self-critical things to themselves.

Then I said the following to Jeff: If you were listening to your friend describe this tough situation, how would you talk to them?

  • Would you tell them Yeah, you’re a real screw-up, man.
  • Would you tell them God, why can’t you get your act together?!
  • Would you tell them That sucks… You’ll probably never get another good job again.

Of course not!

Then I asked Jeff a follow-up question: What types of things would you say to a friend who had just been laid off?

Well, he thought about it for a second, then gave me a few answers:

  • I might tell them: I’m really sorry, man. That’s gotta be tough…
  • I might tell them: I know it seems hopeless now, but you’ve got a lot going for you… I’m sure you’ll find something else soon.
  • I might tell them: I remember when I lost my first job… I was crushed. But it gets easier with time.

After Jeff listed about a dozen of the things he might tell a friend who was going through the same thing he was going through, I asked him the million-dollar question…

What if you talked to yourself about losing your job the same way you would talk to a friend who’d lost their job?

For Jeff, that was really the lightbulb moment.

People had been telling Jeff for as long as he could remember that he needed to be kinder to himself and not be so self-critical.

But it hadn’t clicked for Jeff until he realized this simple idea:

Self-compassion just means applying the same standard of compassion to yourself as you already do to others.

Or put another way, it’s the inverse of The Golden Rule:

Treat yourself the way you treat others.

And the great thing is compassion is a skill you probably already have…

Compassion is something you already know how to do

The great irony of our struggle with self-compassion is this:

People who struggle with self-compassion are often very compassionate with other people.

This is good news. It means that self-compassion isn’t actually some new skill you have to build from scratch. And more than likely, it’s a skill you’re already pretty good at. You just have to get better at applying that skill to yourself and your own struggles.

Now, we’re going to get to how exactly to do this. But before we do, let me field some of the most common pushback and objects I hear to the idea of building self-compassion.


Common Concerns and Objections

A lot of folks have some pretty strong negative reactions to the idea of self-compassion. And those common objections usually fall into one of the following four concerns…

1. All that self-compassion stuff is just hippie nonsense

The gist of this criticism, I think, is that the idea of self-compassion seems to lack substance and rigor—like, it’s the type of thing you’d hear inside a fortune cookie or printed on the underside of your Snapple lid.

But here’s the thing about fortune cookies and Snapple lids—sometimes they actually do have good ideas in them!

Just because a term like self-compassion sounds like other terms that are vapid or lack substance doesn’t mean it suffers the same problem. Don’t judge self-compassion guilty by association.

In fact, there’s actually a very strong base of empirical research showing that self-compassion is an enormously helpful attitude and skill, especially for working through major emotional struggles.

For example: One of the most rigorously studied approaches to treating chronic depression—Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy—uses self-compassion as a core underlying principle. If you’re interested, this book gives an excellent overview.

You could also look at the work of Dr. Kristen Neff who has spent her entire career as an experimental psychologist clarifying, studying, and educating people about self-compassion. Her book, Self-Compassion, is a great resource and introduction to the research.

So yeah, self-compassion might sound like fluff, but it’s actually got a lot of empirical data to back up its utility.

2. Self-compassion is a slippery slope to narcissism

This may actually be the most common criticism I hear from people when I suggest working on self-compassion—that it’s a slippery slope to narcissism.

They worry that if they let up even a tiny bit on their intense self-criticism, somehow they’ll immediately fall into the other extreme and become a lazy, self-absorbed, responsibility-shirking narcissist.

And while I can’t absolutely disprove that theory, I can say that in years of working with hundreds of people to become more self-compassionate, I’ve never seen anyone even get close to that problem.

In fact, I would argue that self-compassion actually buffers you from self-indulgence and narcissism.

Briefly, here’s my logic on that…

  • Narcissism is usually a coping strategy for some deep insecurity. People feel the need to brag about themselves constantly, for example, because deep down, they feel small and insignificant. In other words, feeling bad about yourself is how you get to narcissism.
  • Self-criticism and self-judgment make you feel worse about yourself. And the worse you feel about yourself, the more time and energy and attention you’re going to spend on trying to fix yourself. All time, energy, and attention that can’t be spent on other people.
  • On the other hand, if you are compassionate with yourself, you’re not obsessed with your failings and shortcomings. And as a result, you’re able to be more present with and attentive to others—the exact opposite of narcissism.

Obsessing over your flaws and mistakes is just as narcissistic as obsessing over your strengths and successes.

Self-compassion is the healthy middle between self-loathing and self-centeredness.

3. If I stop being hard on myself I’ll lose my “edge”

There’s a certain breed of successful, high-achieving, and amazingly productive go-getters out there who rely on self-criticism as fuel for their success and achievements.

The core belief driving their constant self-judgment is what I call The Drill Sergeant Theory of Motivation

We’ve all seen a movie where the scrawny young army recruit shows up to basic training a nobody. But after a few weeks of the drill sergeant “getting tough” with them and basically constantly yelling at them and pointing out how weak they are, magically they become men and go off to fight some heroic battle.

Unfortunately, that theory is a myth. But it sticks around because of the old statistical trap of seeing correlation and assuming causation.

In other words, a lot of people grow up being hard on themselves in school and their careers, achieve success, and then assume that because those two things are correlated, the former must be causing the latter.

False.

Today I had an extra cup of coffee and the stock market went up. Does that mean me having an extra cup of coffee each morning makes the stock market go up? Yeah, obviously not.

Similarly, here’s the thing about success…

Most successful people are successful despite their self-criticism, not because of it.

And in fact, I’ve found that over the years working with a lot of these high achievers, when they finally get up the courage to stop being so self-critical and practice a little self-compassion instead, they commonly report “finding another gear” for their productivity and work.

In other words, a little self-compassion will actually make you more productive, not less.

4. I’ve tried self-compassion but it’s just too hard…

Some people are on board with the idea of self-compassion, but where they really struggle is their belief in their own ability to actually do it consistently—to become a more self-compassionate person.

The argument I hear usually goes like this:

I tried being kinder to myself after I made a mistake but my mind kept going back to self-criticism and worrying. I just don’t think self-compassion is in my DNA…

If I’m being honest, this has to be the lamest objection to self-compassion ever.

I can’t become more self-compassionate because it’s hard. What?!

Of course it’s hard!

You’ve spent your entire life building up a habit of intense self-criticism and self-judgment and you’re expecting that building this new, opposing habit of self-compassion is going to be easy? Or that your old habit is just going to give it all up in an instant and check out of your brain?

Think about it like this…

  • If a soldier lost their dominant arm in combat and had to learn how to use a fork (and all sorts of other items) with their non-dominant hand do you think they’d expect it to be easy or feel natural right away?
  • If you decided to learn to play piano, would you expect it to be easy and come naturally right away?
  • If you made a commitment to being more patient with your kids when they don’t listen or follow directions, would you expect it to be easy and come naturally right away?
  • If you got a new job would you expect everything to be easy and come naturally right away?

Obviously, the answer to all of those questions is Of course not! so why would learning to become more self-compassionate be any different?

At the end of the day, self-compassion is a skill like any other. If you’re not very good at it to start, the most obvious and likely explanation isn’t defective DNA, a lack of talent, or the Universe conspiring against you… It’s just a lack of practice.

Building any new skill is frustrating, awkward, and time-consuming. Why would self-compassion be any different?

There’s nothing mystical about self-compassion. It’s a skill like any other. And if you want to build it, you’ve got to put in the reps.


The Benefits of Self-Compassion

There are a ton of very practical and powerful benefits to improving your capacity for self-compassion even a small amount.

Let’s go through some of the biggest ones…

1. Better Moods

I mean, this should be obvious, but when you are a jerk to yourself, you’re not gonna feel great…

  • If you’re constantly comparing yourself to others and beating yourself up for not “being better,” you’re gonna feel a lot of anxiety, shame, and regret on a regular basis.
  • If you’re constantly telling yourself what a failure you are and how you’ll never be successful in the future, you’re gonna feel pretty despondent, sad, and even hopeless much of the time.
  • If you’re always criticizing yourself and being judgmental of your performance in big ways and small, you’re going to feel chronically frustrated and disappointed in yourself.

In short…

If you’re constantly beating yourself up, you’re going to constantly be in a bad mood of one variety or another.

On the other hand, one of the most effective ways to lighten any bad mood (and avoid them in the first place) is to lighten up on yourself.

To be clear, I’m not talking about staring at yourself in the mirror every morning repeating positive mantras about how great you are and how everybody loves you…

Excessive positivity is just as unhelpful as excessive negativity.

I’m just saying you could work on cutting out some of that hypercriticism and unproductive self-judgment. And even if you cut out just 20% of your self-criticism each day, you’d likely get a 20% reduction in your bad moods.

Can you imagine how much money someone could make if they had a pill they could sell promising an immediate 20% reduction in bad moods?

Working to be a little less critical of yourself and exercising a little more self-compassion isn’t quite as easy as popping a pill. But let’s be honest, it’s not exactly running a marathon or landing a spaceship on the moon.

A little self-compassion goes a long way toward consistently better moods.

2. Better Relationships

It’s a little counterintuitive, but being too hard on yourself can easily lead to being too hard on other people. And as a result, straining your relationships.

For example…

You have a bad day at work—you made a big error and you can’t stop ruminating on it and beating yourself up for it. As you sit down for dinner, your son says “Dad, how come you’re always so stressed after work?”

Now, in addition to feeling worried about your mistake at work, you’re also feeling ashamed and disappointed in yourself for letting your work stress get in the way of your family time. But because you’re feeling even worse, you end up ruminating even more and make yourself even more distant from your family.

Self-criticism only makes you more self-focused and distracts from your ability to be truly present and caring with the people that matter most.

On the other hand, what if you did the following after a bad day at work…

As you pull into the driveway after work, you take a few minutes to pause and reflect. You decide you don’t want to keep ruminating on work because you want to go play catch with your son in the backyard.

So you practice a little self-compassion…

  • You remind yourself that it makes sense that you feel disappointed after a mistake. And that even though you’re upset with the mistake, you don’t need to be upset with yourself for feeling upset.
  • You remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes. And that historically, you always tend to rebound pretty well from setbacks.
  • Finally, you remind yourself that you don’t want your work stress to get in the way of your relationship with your family. And you commit to being okay with feeling a little bad about work but still have a good evening anyway.

I would bet big money that if you got in the habit of being compassionate with yourself for mistakes at work, it’d be a lot easier to “leave work at work.” And as a result, really be present with the most important people in your life.

A little self-compassion frees you to be truly present for the people who matter most.

3. Better Productivity

As we talked about, a lot of people grow believing that they need to be hard on themselves in order to succeed and do well—first in school, then at work.

But in reality, most people achieve and find success despite their self-criticism and judgment, not because of it.

And in fact, most people would be both more productive and less stressed if they learned to exercise a little more self-compassion.

Take the problem of procrastination—something we all struggle with in one way or another. Let’s say you’re supposed to write up a big report for work by Friday and you just keep putting it off… Every morning you sit down at your computer to get started, but somehow you end up finding other things to work on.

This situation should be common enough. I mean, we’ve all been there!

But here’s what most people don’t notice about their habit of putting off important work:

Procrastination is often fueled by self-judgment.

See, the minute you feel the urge to procrastinate, if you pay attention, you’ll start to notice that often some quick forms of negative self-talk pop up:

  • Why are you so lazy… just do it!
  • You better not procrastinate again… You’ve already put it off for too long.
  • God, what’s wrong with me? The minute I sit down to work I already feel like procrastinating!

Now, they might not seem like a big deal, but these little microdoses of self-judgment actually make it much harder to stay focused and are usually a key driver of big-time procrastination.

Here’s why:

  • When you feel the urge to procrastinate, it’s like a bit of gravity pulling you away from your work.
  • But when you add a little self-criticism and self-judgment to the mix, you instantly add extra painful emotion into your experience—usually in the form of guilt, shame, or self-directed anger.
  • Now you’re feeling even worse, which means the pull to lose yourself in some cheap distraction like social media or chit-chatting with a coworker is even stronger. And as a result, you’ve made it even more likely that you’ll procrastinate and lose focus.

On the other hand, that initial urge to procrastinate is actually surprisingly easy to overcome if you don’t add a bunch of difficult emotion on top of it by immediately beating yourself up.

If you can practice a little self-compassion when you feel the urge to procrastinate, you’re far more likely to resist the temptation to procrastinate and get back to work:

  • It makes sense that my mind wants me to do something else because these reports really are boring. But I know that if I focus and get it done, I’ll have more time to work on enjoyable tasks.
  • Everybody feels like procrastinating sometimes. That doesn’t make me lazy. It probably says more about the kind of work I have to do than it does about my character.

Alternatively, you might allow yourself to procrastinate in a small way or for a short amount of time, and then get back to work relatively quickly:

  • You know what… it’s been a long day. Maybe this urge to procrastinate is just my mind’s way of saying it needs a little break? I’ll go work a 10-minute walk and listen to a podcast, then come back and get to work.

In any case, the take-home message is simple:

Self-compassion will keep you focused and productive much better than self-judgment will.

4. Better Self-Esteem

My favorite definition of self-esteem comes from Twitter provocateur Naval Ravikant:

Self-esteem is just the reputation you have with yourself.

Let me break that down a tad more…

  • People with low self-esteem don’t believe in themselves: they don’t believe they’re good enough, worthy enough, lovable enough, etc.
  • Where does this negative self-belief come from? Well, it probably started somewhere in childhood: a cold, uncaring parent or something like that.
  • But regardless of the origin of your low self-esteem, the reason you still struggle with low self-esteem is because something in the present is maintaining it.
  • And one of the biggest maintaining factors in low self-esteem is a near-constant stream of self-critical and self-judgmental thinking.
  • What you believe—including what you believe about yourself—is the result of how you think.
  • So if you’re constantly thinking critically of yourself, of course you don’t have good self-esteem!

Back to Naval’s idea of self-esteem as the reputation you have with yourself…

  • If everyone in your life talked badly about you, your reputation with others would be poor, right?
  • Well, the same works for yourself: If you’re constantly talking badly about yourself to yourself, your reputation you have with yourself is going to be pretty poor!

Now, the antidote to this mess of self-criticism and low self-esteem is self-compassion.

If you want to build a better relationship with yourself, you need to start doing things you respect and talking to yourself in a respectable way. But you’re gonna have an awfully hard time doing that if you’re addicted to beating the hell out of yourself all the time.

On the other hand, if you can get into the habit of being a little more gentle and compassionate with yourself, you’ll find you have a lot more energy and mental space to start doing things you’re proud of, which will lead to thinking better of yourself, which eventually lead to higher, healthier self-esteem.

5. Better Self-Awareness

The last big benefit to getting better at self-compassion is that it helps you become more self-aware.

I’m a pretty firm believer in curiosity as the main driver of genuine knowledge acquisition and even wisdom. It’s my experience that when people “force” themselves to study and absorb information for some external reason, it doesn’t tend to stick very well.

On the other hand, people who learn and absorb information because they’re driven by genuine curiosity tend to internalize their learning to a much greater and richer degree.

I highlight the importance of curiosity for learning because I think it’s just as important for self-learning as it is learning about biology or algebra or music theory.

Self-awareness starts with self-curiosity.

When you’re genuinely interested in and curious about your own mind, emotions, beliefs, personality, moods, identities, expectations, and all the other facets of who you are, it’s a lot easier to understand them in a deep way.

But here’s the thing:

It’s hard to be curious about yourself if you’re combative with yourself.

If you’re constantly at war with yourself and your own mind—putting yourself down, second-guessing yourself, judging yourself for every little mistake—how could you hope to have room to become truly curious about yourself? And without that self-curiosity, how could you achieve genuine self-awareness?

Self-compassion improves your self-awareness because it frees you up to become curious about yourself…

  • Instead of immediately labeling your anxiety as bad and reaching into your box of coping skills to make it go away, self-compassion allows you to sit with your anxiety and try to understand it.
  • Instead of immediately judging yourself because you got angry, self-compassion allows you to “listen” to your anger and understand what use it’s serving.
  • Instead of immediately distracting yourself from the pain of grief, self-compassion allows you to sit with your grief and learn from it. And as a result, learn to manage it in a healthy way.

You can only manage yourself better when you understand yourself better. But you can’t understand yourself if you’re always attacking yourself.


How to Practice Self-Compassion: 5 Practical Tips

Despite being 4,000+ words into an article on the topic, remember that self-compassion is not especially complicated:

Self-compassion means that when times are tough you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.

So, let’s take a close look at what practicing self-compassion actually looks like and some tips for doing it well.

1. Acknowledge the pain

By nature, we all tend to avoid pain. Whether it’s pulling back your hand after accidentally touching a hot stove or drowning your grief in alcohol, escaping pain is a pretty normal instinct. And while escape is the proper strategy for pain that signals danger (hand on a hot stove) it’s actually unhelpful if the pain isn’t dangerous.

For example, no matter how bad the pain of loss feels, grief can’t hurt you. But if you constantly run away from it or try and get rid of it, you train your brain to believe that it’s dangerous or bad. Which means you’re likely to feel fear and shame on top of your grief.

The antidote to this vicious cycle of compounding emotional pain is to acknowledge your difficult emotions rather than trying to avoid them.

For example:

  • Months after a breakup or divorce, something reminds you of your former partner and you feel overwhelmingly sad. Rather than immediately trying to distract yourself, you could acknowledge that emotional pain by saying I feel really sad right now. And a little hurt and angry too.
  • While your teenage son is out at a party, a worry about bad choices he could be making pops into your head and you start to feel anxious. Instead of repeatedly calling him in order to get rid of your anxiety (reassurance-seeking), you could acknowledge your anxiety and fear by saying to yourself I’m worried about Ben and I’m feeling pretty anxious and afraid.

Now, I know this might seem a little simplistic at first glance—just acknowledge how you feel. But keep the following two points in mind:

  1. This is just the first step in self-compassion, there’s more to come.
  2. Even if it doesn’t give you immediate relief from your emotional pain, acknowledging how you feel instead of avoiding it does something much more powerful in the long run: it trains your brain not to fear painful emotions. In other words, it builds emotional confidence.

2. Validate the pain

Once you’ve acknowledged your painful feelings by labeling them clearly, the next step is to validate those feelings.

To validate your feelings means to remind yourself that…

  1. It’s okay to feel the way you do. You’re reminding yourself that even though a difficult emotion feels bad, that doesn’t mean it is a bad thing or that you are bad for feeling it.
  2. It makes sense that you feel the way you do. Whether or not a feeling is completely rational or makes total sense, there’s always some reason why you’re feeling the way you do.

Here are a couple examples to clarify what validating your painful emotions might look like:

You just left a meeting at work and the thought pops into your mind that that joke you made about your coworker’s story might not have been received as well as you thought. And that maybe they’re actually really upset with you.

As a result, you start to feel really anxious and a little ashamed. But you catch yourself, pause, acknowledge feeling anxious and ashamed, and then you tell yourself the following:

Ugh, I don’t like feeling anxious and ashamed like this, but it’s okay that I am feeling this way—feeling anxious and shamed won’t hurt me. Plus, this is a normal reaction to potentially saying something insensitive. And in fact, maybe it’s a good thing because it will prompt me to check in with my coworker and apologize if it was offensive.

Another example of validating your painful emotions:

You’re in the middle of a heated argument with your spouse about whether you should allow your adult child to live with you anymore. You feel yourself getting angry, hurt, and defensive.

But you catch this, acknowledge those feelings, then say to yourself:

Okay, this isn’t fun feeling like this, but just because I’m feeling defensive doesn’t mean I have to act angrily or say anything hurtful. It’s normal to get a little defensive in difficult conversations. In fact, of course I’m getting defensive—I mean, who wouldn’t get a little defensive when someone criticizes one of their strong beliefs?

Keep in mind that this whole process of acknowledging your painful feelings and then validating them doesn’t have to be long or time-consuming. In most cases, it’s literally a few seconds’ worth of self-talk.

In addition to reinforcing the idea that just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad, or that you’re bad for feeling it, validation is also like a pressure-release valve on emotional distress: Simply acknowledging and validating your emotions tends to decrease their intensity—often dramatically so.

3. Use constructive comparisons

Comparing yourself to other people is often framed as a negative: From self-esteem-draining comparisons on social media to motivation-killing comparisons with work competitors, the common advice is almost always to “stop comparing yourself to others.”

But just because it’s unhealthy sometimes doesn’t mean it always is. And in fact, when it comes to self-compassion, comparisons with other people can actually be very helpful.

Constructive comparison means reminding yourself that you’re not alone in your struggles by comparing your struggles to other peoples’.

For example:

  • Suppose you’re struggling to finish work on a house project that you started months ago. You keep procrastinating on it, feeling bad for procrastinating, leaving you with even less motivation to just get it done. In addition to acknowledging and validating your urge to procrastinate, you might also remind yourself that Everyone procrastinates sometimes. And in fact, other people probably procrastinate a lot more than I realize because procrastination isn’t exactly something people love to flaunt and show off.
  • Or imagine that you’re feeling really nervous and worried about an upcoming talk you have to give at work. And on top of that, your negative self-talk pops up telling you that it’s ridiculous that you feel this way because you’ve done it dozens of times. Part of being self-compassionate in a moment like this would be to use some constructive comparison and remind yourself of that time your friend and coworker—whose presenting skills you really admire—confided in you once that she always gets nervous before presentations.

Constructive comparisons are key to self-compassion because they remind us that we’re not alone.

And almost always, a large part of our emotional struggles involve feeling alone in them. Because we don’t see a lot of examples of other people’s emotional struggles, we assume we’re the odd one out. And this only intensifies those unhelpful beliefs that there’s something wrong with us for feeling bad.

But a little constructive comparison can go a long way toward helping you feel less alone in your struggles and being more compassionate with your setbacks.

4. Clarify Your Values

Once you’ve acknowledged and validated your painful emotions, and then done a little constructive comparison, the next useful step in self-compassion is to remind yourself of your values.

Now, I get that values is kind of a big, loaded term. What I mean by clarifying your values is that you simply ask yourself, What do I really want?

See, one of the big challenges with feeling bad is that we often get sucked into a very negative mindset. Even when you’re doing helpful aspects of self-compassion like acknowledging and validating your pain or reminding yourself that you’re not alone in that pain, you’re still focused on what you don’t want. And if you’re always focused on what’s wrong, it can be easy to get stuck in an overly-negative mindset.

On the other hand, when you make a little time to deliberately reflect on and clarify your values—the things that really matter to you—you shift your attention onto a positive, future direction.

And this is one of the highest acts of self-compassion because it communicates to your own mind that you are more than your problems and pain. As bad as your current suffering or struggles are, there’s more to you than struggle. You have goals, ambitions, values, aspirations, and dreams.

Now, clarifying your values doesn’t have to be epic in scale…

  • It could be as simple as reminding yourself that patience is a virtue you value and want to live up to, especially in difficult conversations with your spouse.
  • It might mean reminding yourself that growth and learning are important to you. And that neither of those happen without some failure and mistakes.

Self-compassion is about more than being gentle with the negatives; it’s about reminding yourself of the positives as well.

Again, clarifying your values isn’t especially complicated. It just means that, when times are tough or you’re struggling, it can be very helpful to remind yourself of the things that matter most to you.

5. Act Assertively

Perhaps the ultimate form of self-compassion is assertiveness—having the courage to act on your values despite feeling bad.

For example, acting assertively might mean…

  • Even though you feel anxious, you remind yourself that giving this talk is important and meaningful to you and you’re going to do it anyway, anxiety or no anxiety.
  • Despite feeling angry, you remind yourself that your relationship with your wife is more important than any particular disagreement, so you hold your tongue and refrain from saying that sarcastic comment.
  • Despite feeling the urge to procrastinate on your creative hobby, you remind yourself how important expressing your creativity is to you and get to work despite feeling uninspired and unmotivated.

Like values clarification, assertiveness is such a critical element of self-compassion because it reminds us that we are more than how we feel at any given moment. It reminds us that our values and goals define us at least as much as our pain and suffering.

When you make the decision to pursue your values despite your feelings, you communicate to yourself that what you want is just as important and defining as what you don’t want. And you reinforce the belief that you are worthy of living the life you aspire to regardless of the whims and impulses of the moment.

Assertiveness is an act of self-compassion because it reminds us that we are more than our problems—much, much more.


Final Thoughts

If nothing else, I hope this guide has helped you think a little differently about self-compassion.

I hope it’s encouraged you to see that a little gentleness and compassion is often a much more compelling way to move forward than self-criticism and judgment.

And I hope it’s inspired you to at least experiment with a little more self-compassion in your own life.

And finally, remember that self-compassion isn’t complicated…

Self-compassion means that when times are tough you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.

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This is so validating. For too long, I thought I was more self-compassionate than I was (I had worked on it a lot, after all!), and it took really getting still and listening to inner thoughts in order to see that subtle judgments were still coming through. You’re right about both judgment and curiosity, because curiosity replaces judgment. We are such interesting creatures, aren’t we? And what an adventure we can have getting to know ourselves!

Such a wonderful article! I’ve bookmarked it because I’ll need to read it over and over, and because I need to send some people the link. Thank you for this!

This hits close to home. I can be extremely brutal to myself but some of these tips are really great reminders to prioritize self compassion. I love the part of using “constructive comparison.”

I started having panic attacks four months ago which led to dreadful GAD. These months have been the most debilitating I could have imagined. The cause? Sudden, unforeseen fear regarding the future based on decisions made 25 years ago. The result? Constant irrational rumination and negative self-talk, self- criticism and unhappiness. How I wish I could have read this article last November. It has opened my eyes (as have so many of your well-crafted newsletters). I feel positive for the first time since this anxiety took hold that there is a road out. Many thanks.

Great post as usual, with your amazing strength of making it so simply understandable and actionable.
“Most successful people are successful despite their self-criticism, not because of it.” I think you are taking a shortcut here. The association is not success and hard-edged. That came later. The association, I think, is from way earlier: safety and hard-edged. If you suck it up, you’ll be OK in you’re family. So that’s imprinted on the motherboard. Then adult life seems to confirm it: if you keep your edge, you succeed (proof is in the pudding). Undoing the success causation/correlation fallacy is not enough. You need to go deeper and undo the safety fallacy/fantasy. If I become softer to myself (and others), I will be OK (I won’t be shunned, rejected, mocked, etc.) This is the whole work of Brene Brown on shame and vulnerability.

Helpful as ever. As someone who regularly uses comparison with others to prove why I’m a bad mum or why I didn’t get the promotion, and flagelate myself with that, I love the idea of constructive comparison and realising we are not alone in our struggles.

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