The Key to Overcoming Challenges (It May Surprise You)

WebMD Blog:

The Key to Overcoming Challenges (It May Surprise You)

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD


Everyone has challenges. They face situations that make them want to give up. Those who are successful – not only in achieving their goals, but in feeling good about themselves and their accomplishments – have a special and admirable talent. Rather than motivating themselves with self-criticism or sinking into despair, they view their struggles as understandable while remaining committed to their goals. How are they able to do this? Self-compassion.

The researcher Kristin Neff and her colleagues have conducted many studies about self-compassion. She defines it as having three basic elements: self-kindness, being warm and understanding toward ourselves; common humanity, recognizing that having personal failures is part of the human experience; and, mindfulness, an ability to accept our experiences and to observe them without judgment.  When people are high in self-compassion, they also tend to enjoy its benefits, such as:

  • Being happy and optimistic
  • Feeling a sense of meaning in life
  • Experiencing lower levels of stress
  • Having an ability to view difficult circumstances in a realistic, yet positive way
  • Feeling worthy and lovable
  • Maintaining healthy relationships
  • Being motivated to pursue personal growth

You can work toward these many benefits of self-compassion by choosing to nurture each of its elements:

Self-Kindness: This is basically understanding, wanting, and pursuing what is best for yourself.

Practice: There are many ways to be kind to yourself. For instance, consider the elements of a healthy lifestyle, such as getting sufficient sleep, engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and including time in your days for activities that nurture your emotional or spiritual self. Pick one area to focus on. Commit to a realistic plan for building this form of self-kindness into your life for the long term.

Common Humanity: This is the recognition that all people are imperfect and endure personal suffering.

Practice: Identify a personal struggle. Then consider whether you have known others who have had similar struggles. Or, imagine how you would think or feel toward someone who shared a similar struggle. Do you empathize with, or have sympathy for, the person? Perhaps you have compassion – a wish for them to be out of their pain and feel better? Finally, come back to thinking about how your struggles are similar to theirs. Allow yourself to really “get” that your struggles are simply human ones – not signs that there is something flawed in you. Maybe you can even allow yourself to feel empathy and compassion for your own pain.

Mindfulness: This nonjudgmental observation of the present moment is much more difficult to maintain than you might think. The human mind is programmed to wander and explore – so it is easy to get lost in thoughts or emotions. Instead, when you are mindful, you remain aware of “seeing” your thoughts and feelings without being caught up in them or judging them. This helps with compassion because you cannot have a caring feeling toward your pain if you are easily and repeatedly distracted from it.

Practice: Sit in a quiet place. Pay attention to your breath, simply allowing your attention to follow your inhale and exhale. If you get distracted by other thoughts, gently redirect your awareness back to your breath. At first, do this for just a few breaths. With practice, you can stay with it for more time. Eventually, you can apply this to paying attention to your inner pain so that you can offer yourself compassion.

If you work on each of these elements of self-compassion daily over months, and even years, your self-compassion will thrive. And with your greater self-compassion, you will feel better about yourself, overcome life’s many obstacles, and find the inner and outer successes that you seek.


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