5 Exercises to Nurture Self-Compassion


Exercises-to-Nurture-Self-Compassion-RM-1440x810According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., self-compassion expert and associate professor of human development at the University of Texas in Austin, there is physiological data supporting the claim that self-compassionate people have better emotional coping skills. In her book Self-Compassion, she explains that researchers have measured cortisol levels and heart-rate variability among participants trained to have more compassion, both of which determine how well you adapt to stress.  “The more self-compassionate versus self-critical that people were, the lower their cortisol levels and the higher their heart-rate variability,” she writes. Research also shows that people who are more self-compassionate have more emotional intelligence—they are aware of their feelings and can maintain better emotional balance when flustered.

But how do you get there?

Identifying self-critical talk and behavior is a start, and replacing those old tapes with commentary that is gentle and loving. If you are like me, though, you need more concrete directions. Here are a few exercises that can be useful in helping you nurture self-compassion.

1. Set Boundaries

The greatest commandment in the New Testament is to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The second part keeps coming up in therapy: I can’t love my neighbor if I hate myself. Part of loving myself, then, is taking care of myself. We who lack self-compassion always make sure everyone else is taken care of, giving little consideration to our needs.

As part of an outpatient depression program I participated in, we did an exercise to practice boundaries. An older woman came to the center of the circle and talked about how her daughter would drop off her grandkids at seven in the morning and expect her to take care of them all day, even though the older woman was tired and sick. A few nurses surrounded the woman, while saying, “Here are my kids. Take care of them.” And “Do this for me.” As they gave her commands, they pushed their hands into her back, creating pressure. They kept on pushing until the woman formulated a response and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t watch your kids today.”

Think about one small boundary you can make that promotes self-care.

2. Have Compassion For Others

Self-compassion is intimately tied, of course, to compassion for others. In her book, When Things Fall Apart, American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes: “If we find ourselves unworkable and give up on ourselves, then we’ll find other unworkable and give up on them. What we hate in ourselves, we’ll hate in others. To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we will also have compassion for others.”

A good exercise, then, is extending as much compassion as possible on each other, especially those whom we blame. For example, there is a woman in my life who also suffers from depression. Her diet is horrible. She doesn’t exercise. And she consumes too much alcohol. I tend to say, “no wonder why she is depressed.” But after reading Chodron’s chapter on compassionate action, I realized that kind of attitude is exactly why I’m having trouble with self-compassion. I blame myself whenever I can’t turn around an anxious thought, thinking that I’m not trying hard enough. Chodron says a critical step to self-compassion is recognizing that what we reject in ourselves is what we reject in others, and what reject in others is what we reject in ourselves. Therefore, extending compassion to others helps us be more loving with ourselves.

Alice Walker said this in her commencement address to Naropa University in 2007:

Be compassionate to everyone. Don’t just search for whatever it is that annoys and frightens you. See beyond those things to the basic human being. Especially see the child in the man or woman. Even if they are destroying you, allow a moment to see how lost in their own delusion and suffering they are.

3. Write a Letter To Yourself

When I was hospitalized for suicidal depression ten years ago, one of the assignments of group therapy was to write a letter to ourselves. It was a powerful exercise. I kept mine and still read it today, because I continue to struggle with much of what I wrote about—loving myself as I am.

I found this to be one of the most effect exercises to nurture self-compassion. Your letter doesn’t have to be long. In fact, just three words will do, “I love you.”

4. Treat Yourself As a Friend

“Sometimes the easiest way to appreciate ourselves is by looking through the eyes of someone who loves us,” writes clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, Ph.D. in her book Radical Acceptance. When we aren’t ready or able to extend compassion to ourselves, it is often helpful to imagine what our friend would say to us. You could do this informally, by just envisioning the loving, forgiving, and gentle words of a good friend counter the self-critical tapes that run automatically. However, since I am a journalist, I find it helpful to actually write down what my friends have said to me—during critical conversations when I need their support and guidance—so that I can go back and read them whenever I need a dose of kindness.

You could also role play the part of your inner critic and your friend and conduct a dialogue between the two of you. A few ways of doing this. One, make an audio recording of yourself—“I am horrible, etc.”—and then record what your friend would say, “You are wonderful, etc.” Two, conduct a dialogue on paper, writing down the commentary of your inner critic as well as the kind remarks of your friend. Finally, you could make a puppet for your inner critic and one for your friend (paper bags work). That teaches self-compassion while injecting a much-needed sense of humor into the situation.

5. Develop a Self-Compassion Mantra

Neff suggests that you design your own self-compassion mantra, “a set of memorized phrases that are repeated silently whenever you want to give yourself compassion.” They are especially useful when strong feelings of distress arise. For example, I really like the mantra Neff herself developed:

This is a moment of suffering.

Suffering is part of life.

May I be kind to myself in this moment.

May I give myself the compassion I need.


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Illustration: Trina Dalziel/Getty Images

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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1 Response
  1. Casey

    Dear Therese, I look forward to your posts. I love your authenticity and honesty. This post is so wonderful and interesting. What I am struggling with is I have a high degree of compassion for myself and others, really empathy, however when compassion is not received from others and instead their expectations, judgement and unkindness, that is where I stumble and fall.

    I’ve read about the book you mention and it has such strong reviews I’m going to read and hope for some insight.

    Wishing you well each day.