Mind Your Mind: What is self-compassion and how do I practice it?

One of my favourite authors is Dr. Kristin Neff, who wrote a book titled Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. She is also the co-author of a workbook, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, which introduces readers to self-compassion exercises and argues that self-compassion is a powerful tool that people can use to achieve their goals and take care of their health.

I first discovered Neff when I was struggling with my mental health. I kept having negative thoughts about myself, and was stuck in an endless cycle of perfectionism and beating myself up every time I thought I messed up. What I like about Neff’s work is that she acknowledges that in our society, we often want to feel “special and above average” in order to feel worthy, but self-compassion is available to everyone. Neff reiterates the idea that it is okay to give yourself as much compassion as you would to anyone else.

Neff talks about how much we create our own suffering by constantly comparing ourselves to others. I could definitely relate, because I often compare myself to my peers, thinking that they are smarter, more resourceful and getting better grades. It’s a habit that has not served me well over the years, but I’m working hard to change it.

So, what are the three components of self-compassion?

According to Neff, self-compassion has three components: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Self-kindness is about being “gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.” Common humanity is about “feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.” Finally, mindfulness is when “we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.”

Where do I start?

I started practicing by picking one of the exercises in the book. One exercise I liked was “exploring self-compassion through letter writing.” Essentially, the exercise asks you to think of a flaw, quality or something that causes you to feel shame. It can be something like your physical appearance, work issues, relationship problems and so on. Then, you are asked to reflect about how this issue makes you feel. I wrote about my grades and my fears of never being accepted to graduate school. My feelings of failure are often related to how I feel about my academic performance, so that issue resonated with me.

The second part of the exercise is about thinking of an imaginary friend, who is unconditionally loving and kind. This imaginary friend sees all your qualities and weaknesses and knows about your issue. The goal is to reflect upon how this imaginary friend feels about you, and how they accept you exactly as you are and embrace your human imperfections. Essentially, you write a letter to yourself from the perspective of your imaginary friend, in the hopes that you can show yourself more kindness.

When I wrote the letter to myself, I used kinder words and was more accepting of the unknown. I wrote that even if I didn’t get into graduate school, I was still an intelligent, knowledgeable human being. I thought about my potential rejection and how I would feel in that moment, and how I could alleviate my suffering using self-compassion in the future. Everyone has a life history, unique things that have happened in their lives that make them who they are. For me, it helps to know that despite what happens, I will always be worthy of validation, health and happiness. In a way, this exercise helped me reflect on a whole bunch of other times when I felt rejected by someone and how I coped with the aftermath.

Neff suggests that you put down your letter for the next little while. When you finally come back and read it again, she suggests you let the words sink in. Hopefully, you can feel self-compassion pouring into you. I have found that for myself, this compassion brings comfort and peace.

To learn more about Neff’s work, visit self-compassion.org.

The authors of this column are not mental health professionals. If you need additional support, please contact Student Health Services, Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or the Wellness Centre. In case of an emergency, call 911.