Embracing Life With Self-Compassion


Written by Hokuma Karimova

On March 12, 2018
Embracing Life With Self-Compassion


Success and mindset coach who utilizes proven techniques of coaching, psychology and mindfulness to navigate you to success.


As of October 2017, the world’s population stands at 7.6 billion. That’s a lot of people!

Yet, despite occupying the same time and space, the way we perceive this reality is different.Each of us, through our choice and disposition, crafts a unique path that is given to history.

Simply put, the minute we are born, we enter into a life stream. Surviving it, especially inturbulent waters, where change is the only constant, can be challenging. Finding a refuge amongst uncertainty is hard, especially because humans are in charge of building their own safe harbors.

So, how do we navigate these pit falls? By accepting them with understanding.Of course, that’s not easy.

You see, we live in a time where quality is defined by popular standards. Our ability to meet, exceed, or surpass these benchmarks energizes, motivates, and assists us along themilestones of progress. However, such conditions also promote competition. Since childhoodwe’ve experienced it through standardized exams, mainstream trends, and advertisement. Webought the belief that ‘self-esteem’ can fuel us to the heights of greatness, at least for a bit.

Why a bit?

“As William James (1890) proposed over a century ago, self-esteem involves evaluatingpersonal performances (how good am I?) in comparison to set standards (what counts as goodenough?) in domains of perceived importance (it’s important to be good at this). Self-esteemalso involves looking to others’ evaluations of the self (how much do others like me, approve ofme?), in order to determine how much one likes the self (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934). Socialcomparison is an additional determinant of self-esteem (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1993; Beach &Tesser, 1995; Buunk, 1998; Deci & Ryan, 1995; Suls & Wills, 1991), so that the self is evaluatedin relation to the performances of others.” (Neff, 2003)

Living in a society where self-worth is based on the opinions of others may have unintentionally led us to “narcissism, self-absorption, self-centeredness, and a lack of concern for others (Damon, 1995; Seligman, 1995).”
(Neff2, 2003)

In fact, “one of the most insidious consequences of the self-esteem movement of the last coupleof decades is the narcissism epidemic. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, examined thenarcissism levels of more than 15,000 U.S. college students between 1987 and 2006. Duringthat 20-year period, narcissism scores went through the roof, with 65 percent of modern-daystudents scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations. Not coincidentally, students’average self-esteem levels rose by an even greater margin over the same period. [But], self-esteem has also been linked to aggression, prejudice, and anger towards those who threatenour sense of self-worth.” (Neff a, 2011)

That’s because we forgot the following aspects of self-esteem:

1) It’s “difficult to raise an individual’s self-esteem, since self-esteem has proven to be highlyresistant to change.” (Neff 3, 2003)

2) It’s been shown that, “the desire for high self- esteem may result in a willingness to see theworst in others as a means of rating the self more favorably in comparison. In fact, high rather than low self-esteem has been associated with increased prejudice toward out-groups. (Neff 4, 2003)

3) We all suffer from “better-than-average effect”. It makes us believe we are better than others.It keeps self-worth unharmed, but risks being dismantled if exposed to reality. (Young-Hoon, Heewon, & Chi-Yue, 2017)

4) An inflated sense of self-esteem may lead to aggression and violence against those perceived to threaten the ego. (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996)

5) Competitions leave losers and winners. When we lose, we get self-critical. It leads todefensiveness, insecurity, and anxiousness. We become more sensitive to events, and insecureabout their outcome. We begin to isolate ourselves, and ask ourselves – what’s wrong with me? (Seppala, 2014)

Well, this is not helpful.

How can we accept the real problems plaguing our world, and sit with them long enough toresolve them? It appears that as soon as we fail in our pursuit for greatness, the voice ofcriticism tells us to work harder. But because we’re busy criticizing ourselves, we forget to learnthe lessons of how to approach these emotions. This creates obstacles and delays growth.

So, is it possible to succeed, without beating ourselves up?
Yes – with self-compassion.

As a leading scientist in this field, Dr. Kristin Neff, points out that self-compassion has the samebenefits as self-esteem, but with: “less depression, [and] greater happiness…. In a large surveyconducted with more than 3,000 people from various walks of life, researchers found that self-compassion was associated with more stable feelings of self-worth (assessed 12 different timesover an eight-month period) than self-esteem. This may be related to the fact that they alsofound self-compassion to be less contingent on things like physical attractiveness or successfulperformances than self-esteem. Also, self-esteem had a strong association with narcissismwhile self-compassion had no association with narcissism.” (Neff a2, 2011)

This shows that, when we become more understanding, and tolerant of our failures and flaws, we are capable of reminding ourselves that the downs of life are simply a part of it. So weshouldn’t identify with the negative moments, and accept them as valuable lessons to carry on.

It retains our energy and channels it towards our peace of mind. When the brain is moresuitable in processing criticism and rejection, it experiences fewer emotional instabilities, andremains at ease. That’s because with compassion, we remember our self-worth through core values, which are a better indicator of who we are than external circumstances. (Seppala 2, 2014)

Hence, “self- empathy is a kind of ‘corrective relational experience’ in which previously judgedaspects of us are ‘accepted and responded to in a caring, affectively present and re-connectedmanner’.” (Jordan, 1991, p. 287)

Here are the key aspects of self-compassion:

1) self-kindness:
we want to actively soothe the self to feel as good as possible, despite the negative events

2) sense of common humanity:
in times of emotional upheaval, we remember that suffering is part of life, it happens to us all

3) mindfulness:
instead of identifying with the negative emotions, we learn to just observe and sit with suffering

These pillars are the basis on which true self-acceptance can grow. While logically wecomprehend that to err is human, when it comes to the daily activities, our egos and the desiresto be above average keep pressuring us to compete with self and others. Interestingly, “whilemany psychological theories assume that individuals are primarily self-interested, having moreconcern for themselves than for others (see Miller, 1999, for a review), common experiencesuggests people are often much harsher and unkind toward themselves than they ever wouldbe to others they cared about, or even to strangers.” (Neff 4, 2003)


If you’re curious to see how you would score on self-compassion, feel free to test it here:

Growing Self-Compassion Exercises

As we’ve discussed, self-compassion helps us accept ourselves and our reality as it is. It fills uswith positive emotions and motivates us to keep moving forward. We’re encouraged to care for ourselves, and begin to wish ourselves the best, in words and in action.

It’s very valuable to know how to activate this in times of trauma, stress, depression, anxiety and worry. The magic of it lies in compassion’s ability to stretch our psychological flexibility.“ After all, learning how to become less attached to your thoughts, hold them in mindful awareness, and respond to them with a broader repertoire of skills — like self-kindness, for example — has not only been posited in the self-compassion literature as a core feature of mental health but proven time and again in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) research.” (Hayes, 2015)

Actually, a longitudinal study of 2,448 ninth graders, showed that those who have high levels of self-compassion, even in moments of low self-esteem, won’t experience detrimental affects on their mental health. That means, the ability to dissociate ourself from the outer events canenable us to maintain a strong sense of personal well-being. (Hayes 2, 2015)

It implies that:

_1I Self-compassion helps us accept and care for the parts of ourself that we judge.

_2I This is compatible to, (Rogers (1961), ‘‘unconditional positive regard’’ toward oneself—where one adopts an unconditionally caring emotional stance toward oneself.”

_3I Self-compassion, “may prove to be an important aspect for emotional intelligence, which includes an ability to monitor our emotions and to skillfully guide ourselves in certain direction.”(Salovey & Mayer, 1990)

_4I We learn to see ourselves beyond the self-evaluation process, focusing on feelings of compassion toward us and our common humanity, instead of making self-judgments.(Neff 5, 2003)

_5I We become autonomous, self-determined and intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated, so that actions are performed out of genuine interest rather than in response to an external threat or reward.(Deci & Ryan, 1995)

Below is a list of activities that suggest various scenarios for cultivating self-compassion:

1. Notice when you start feeling shame, or start hearing the voice of the inner critic.

Shame is not an uncommon feeling. We experience it many times when we fail to meet our desired standards in our body image, finances, health, sex, addiction, and more. That’s because, originally, shame helped us hide our flaws from others, it didn’t help solve them.

If we are constantly hiding our worries, and stressing over the gap between where we are and where we want to be, we start to build pressure and anxiety, producing overwhelm and burnout.(Sholl, 2013)

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brené Brown shares a list of common shames:

– I’m flawed
– I’m not: good/pretty/talented/successful/rich/masculine/feminine/tough/caring/pretty/skinny/creative/popular enough.
– Who do I think I am?
– No one can ever find out about _______.
– I’m going to pretend everything is OK.
– I can change to fit in if I have to.
– Taking care of them is more important than taking care of me.

This avalanche of stress, caused by our need to be something we’re not makes us more negative. We lead with a narrow vision, display distancing behavior, and think negatively. (Sholl 2, 2013)

So what can you do?

Build resilience:

_aI Recognize: Become aware of your shame by noticing for any of these physical changes: moving away from the problem through isolation; moving toward unhealthy habits or relationships to appeal to others; moving against others through aggression, to help stop the feelings of shame.

_bI Share: Open up. You will need to create an environment of trust and acceptance, where individuals can begin to share their authentic stories, without being judged, and meeting others like them.

_cI Build self-compassion: Become aware of your body and notice how anxiety shows up in it. Develop an ability to remainmindful, but don’t identify too closely with it. Try using humor, it could help create a comic relief.

2. As you feel the rise of anxiety or worry, notice the message of your thoughts.

A study at Stanford University found that self-criticism is extremely harmful. Studies focusing onindividuals wishing to accomplish goals, found that those who criticized themselves experienceda much slower process of growth, and were less likely to obtain their goals. (McQuaid, 2016)

3. Use creativity to imagine new outcomes and possibilities.

Positive imagery, which promotes calmness and self-soothing can reduce our sympathetic nervous system activity and enhance the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s because the parasympathetic system activates ‘rest-and-digest’, as well as ‘feed and breed’ parts of the mind, which is all about rest and relaxation. So, you can be mentally checked out.(Palmer, 2009)

4. Throw a party for negative thoughts. Invite them to tea and hear them out.

This is where mindfulness comes into play. It’s a practice of being more aware of our everydaylife. Of exposing the self to external stimuli without judgement, which helps us unpack the bag of memories which cause us: stress, rumination, negative self-talk, poor memory, and more.(Rockman, 2015)

As Dr. Patricia Rockman said:

“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges from intentionally training to regulate our attentionand emotion and a willingness to encounter, at least temporarily, whatever is arising so we cancome to fully know our direct experience.”

Wondering what to expect from self-compassion? How about:

1. Feeling more happy.
A study at Duke University showed that, those who could show similar kindness they have for strangers to themselves, they had less: negativity, self-critical thoughts, and were more forgiving.
(Kamps, 2017)

2. Strengthening your resilience.
In 2011, a study at University of California, Berkley found that students who wrote themselves a consoling letter, for performing worse than expected on an exam, studied harder and got abetter grade the next time.
(Kamps 2, 2017)

3. Rejuvenating your body.
Being kind to yourself means you’ll be more likely to eat well, move around, and be present.

4. Transforming into a better friend.
Another study found that students who wrote themselves a letter from the perspective of acaring friend, were more likely to apologize to someone they treated badly. By understanding what it’s like to care for others, we can start to better care for ourselves.
(Kamps 3, 2017)

5. Preparing yourself for the future.
Under high stress and self-negativity, we start feeling lazy, and subsequently procrastinate. If wepractice mindfulness, instead of falling into negative self-judgement, we see the big picture, andare able to be more aware of the choices we make. (Graham, 2017)

The ability to do all this comes from the silence we create, in which we hear our voice of wisdomand self-compassion between stimuli, allowing us to enact new behaviors, instead of old ones.

The ultimate result? An improved sense of well-being.

Test it Out: Worksheets for Increasing Compassion

There are several tools that can help you with developing compassion.

Here are a few:

1. RAIN of Self-Compassion:
Recognize what’s going on;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is
Investigate with interest and care
Nourish with self-compassion

2. Mindfulness Guidebook:
Discover self-compassion; how to practice mindfulness; finding your compassionate voice; living deeply; transforming relationships; living your life, etc..

3. Approaching Meals with Compassion:
Learn the four steps to help add more understanding and compassion to your meal times.

4. Exploring Self-Compassion:
Answer a sequence of five questions to analyze your self-compassion.

5. Self-Compassion Scale (SCS):
Originate by Dr. Kristin Neff during her self-compassion research (the test in Introduction).

6. Compassionate Love For Humanity Scale (CLS):
Twenty one questions to measure your compassionate love for humanity.

7. Santa Clara Brief Compassion Scale (SCBCS):
The five item version of the Sprecher and Fehr’s (2005) 21-item CLS scale.

How to Love and Accept Yourself

The Buddha once said: “You yourself, as much as anybody else in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

This is how this idea could look like in your life:


Taking time to care for ourselves is uncommon, so it feels like we’re being self-indulgent or self-pitying when we start practicing it. But that’s just discomfort talking, because self-compassionhelps us see reality and things as they are. (Tartakovsky, 2017)

So start practicing:

1. Imagine how you would treat a friend if they were currently in your shoes.

2. Pay attention to the word choice of the inner critic.

3. Using physical gestures, such as putting your hands over the heart, to soothe your pain.

4. Create a mantra of positive phrases or affirmations to remind yourself in times of darkness.

5. Practice some guided audio meditations in the comfort of your home.

6. Remember to focus your attention on the process, not the outcome.

Sometimes it is more helpful to write your thoughts in a notebook, and keep track of your thoughts that way. Consider keeping a journal of self-compassion for a week. Write down thenegative self-talk, and then find the opposite of each from the common humanity perspective.(McQuaid 2, 2016)

How to Love and Accept Others

Self-compassion helps create an island of calm where our minds can find refuge in difficult times. Therefore, despite what’s happening outside of us, at work, or in our relationships, we areable to approach life from a wider perspective, and help put things in order. (Neff b, 2011)

When dealing with others, try to remember that:

1. Though others may hurt you, they are also human and might be suffering.

2. Tell yourself that, just like you, they are following their own path, and doing the best they can.

3. Find ways to assist other individuals. Volunteer and grow your network of support.

4. Identify the causes of your dissatisfaction, and try to sit with the responses.

What this means is, cultivating acceptance, understanding, and love, is important not only for our interactions with others, but also for ourselves. Mastering these skills takes a lot of time andpractice, so don’t expect change overnight, and don’t give up quickly. (Lanahan, 2010)

For more information, you can purchase the Self-Compassion book by Dr. Neff. Also, you can sign up for an 8-week self-compassion course from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.

Take Home Message

After decades of work, research, experiments and outcomes, we have come to find that the best way to motivate ourselves to think and feel well is through self-compassion.

That’s because instead of trying to change the moment or ourselves, we focus on accepting and understanding this life. We begin to accept the ups and downs of life as a given.

In today’s world, scarcity, economic and climate instability, as well as inequality, serve as signs of a problem. Creating room for self-compassion can heal these global wounds, and our own.

As Dana Nourie said: “While others may fool us with stories, lies, and misinformation, the biggest deceptions happen within our very own heads!”. So what have you been believing?

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