Before we talk about practicing self-compassion, it is important to first get a sense of where you fall on the spectrum. On Dr. Kristin Neff’s website, a tool I love to use is the self-compassion quiz. Take the quiz, answer the questions as honestly as you can, and then write down your scores before reading on. These scores are only for you, and come with no judgement at all. Think of it as a fitness test prior to beginning a workout regimen. The only way to measure your progress accurately is to know where you started from.
Are you ready to exercise your self-compassion? Here are three exercises below that, if you commit to them over this next week, will definitely increase the strength of your self-compassion muscle.
Pick one area you tend to criticize yourself about. Whether it’s your weight, your job, your parenting skills…just pick one area and spend five minutes meditating on that thing. Bring up scenarios that you have found yourself in when your self-criticism was at its peak. Notice how you feel, and where you feel the discomfort in your body. Put your hands on the part of your body that aches the most when you criticize yourself. If you feel it throughout your whole body, or you don’t feel physical sensation at all, then simply place your hands over your heart. Take three deep breaths.
Now visualize a time when you have been your most kind to yourself about something difficult. How did you feel? What part of your body comes alive when you feel self-compassion? I often smile when I do this exercise. If you feel like it too, go for it! Become acquainted with the physical sensation of self-compassion. Put your hands on the part of your body where you feel this the most. Again, if you feel sensation all over, or not at all, simply place your hands over your heart. Take three deep breaths.
For this next exercise, find a picture of yourself, and one of someone you really care about. It might be a picture of your friend, parent, child or even a well-known person you have never met like an author of a book you love or a religious figure. Set the two pictures upright, side by side, where you can see them. Now, I want you to write down on an index card the most common self-critical things you say to yourself (“I’m too fat” or “I’m ugly” or “I can never do anything right”). After you have written down at least three statements, I want you to set this card next to the picture of the other person. Visualize how you would respond to them if you heard them say these things about themselves. What would you tell them? Write your response on another index card, and set this one down next to your own picture. As you look at the two pictures and two index cards, recognize that everyone feels upset or down on themselves at some point in their lives, and that we are all worthy of self-compassion. See the two beautiful people in the photos, linked by a common humanity. And then, take the index card with the critical statements and tear it up. Place the other index card with the compassionate statements between the two pictures and leave this up for at least a week. Throughout the week, when you catch yourself being self-critical, look at the pictures and read the statements.
Set aside about 15 minutes a day for the next seven days for this letter writing exercise. Think about something that happened during the day that you struggled with. Maybe it’s something that happened at work, maybe it’s anxiety about upcoming plans, or feelings of insecurity for no reason at all. Write a letter to yourself as if you were yourself from the future. This future you has already overcome the challenge and wants to help you. What advice would the future you give to the current you? What would he or she write about the process of going through something difficult, and coming out the other side? Start off each of your letters with this statement:
“Dear (Your name here),
I know what you are going through today, and I want you to know, you are not alone.”
Continue the letter with anything that comes to mind, and write as long as you would like. They key here is to stick to a daily writing schedule for seven days, so if writing a shorter letter helps you stay committed to the exercise, that’s perfectly fine.
Like I mentioned in my previous post, self-compassion is an important trait to develop not just because it makes us feel better subjectively, but because it is associated with numerous objective benefits. We are more likely to be resilient to stress and to stick to positive health behaviors, which means we can enjoy healthier lives. Practicing self-compassion is rewiring your brain for the better! So commit to at least one week of the exercises, and revisit them as often as necessary. Retake the quiz to see how you have improved, and be sure to let me know what changes you have started to notice in your life!