How to Build Self-Compassion

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How to Build Self-Compassion

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: geralt/21135/pixabay


Life can be very painful. Some days are so difficult, you may wish you had never even gotten out of bed. While there’s no magic way to remove all discomfort and pain from your life, you can lessen your distress by offering yourself compassion.

When you approach yourself with compassion, you show caring to yourself just as you would to a friend or child who is struggling. You might say to yourself in a caring tone that you know what a difficult time you are having. By responding to your pain in this way – rather than just being engulfed by it – you can help ease and manage your distress.

One way to do this is with what Kristin Neff, a noted self-compassion researcher, calls a self-compassion break. It includes four important elements:

Attend to your suffering. It is natural to try to ignore or deny pain. The problem with this is that the pain continues even as we try to get away from it. To experience the healing power of compassion, you must be willing to face your pain. So, Neff suggests you begin your self-compassion break by thinking of a situation that causes you stress or pain, opening yourself to the experience of it.

Consciously note that you are suffering. Because emotional pain often creates a sense that it has always been and will always be with us, Neff’s exercise directs you to be aware (or mindful) of your pain existing in this moment. She suggests that you say to yourself something like, “This is a moment of suffering,” or, “This hurts.”

Recognize that suffering is something that all people experience. People often feel singled out for hardship, leading them to feel alone, flawed, or even punished for being themselves. But when you realize and accept that all people suffer, you do not add this extra unnecessary pain to your experience – and you will likely feel less alone. Neff suggests that you say something to yourself, such as: “Suffering is part of life,” “Other people feel this way,” or, “I’m not alone.”

Bring compassion to yourself with physical touch and well wishes. This final part of the self-compassion break involves gently placing your hands over your heart and paying attention to the warmth of them on your chest. As you do this, Neff suggests that you find a comforting phrase that you can repeat to yourself. Some suggestions are: “May I be kind to myself,” “May I forgive myself,” or, “May I be patient with myself.” Another option is: “May I learn to accept myself as I am.”

This practice works best when you give it your full attention. Do it slowly and with the intention of caring for yourself. You can do it in a moment of emotional pain or as a regular practice one or multiple times a day. The more you practice self-compassion breaks, the better you will become at really feeling the compassion and the comfort that it brings.

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Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.