July 13, 2022
How to Practice Self Compassion: Exercises for Self Love & Appreciation
Written by Rachel Eddins
1. You Are Worth Caring For
Let’s be honest: You’re busy with life. Slowing down to take the time for self-care might feel unattainable, but it can make all the difference.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion means we treat ourselves with the same care and kindness that we would for someone we care for and love. Self-compassion is manifested in not only thoughts but also in behavior.
Treating ourselves with care can mean many things, ranging from taking a bath to engaging in meaningful social interactions. It involves listening to our needs, rather than primarily focusing on what others want us to do or what the outside world dictates.
Self-compassion is self-care. Identify ways in which you currently care for yourself.
One of the first steps in developing self-compassion is to care for yourself as you would your own child. Self-care is a series of small, daily acts that fulfill your needs over time.
Dig deep and consider activities you enjoy, even if you judge yourself for them.
The physical component: Allowing your muscles to soften, releasing the tension from your body.
- How do you care for your body?
- What are some ways in which you could release tension and stress in the physical sense, or what are some techniques that already work?
- Try some of these exercises for releasing stress.
The mental component: Not trying to regulate your thoughts, allowing them to come and go.
- How do you care for yourself mentally?
- How could you allow your thoughts to come and go with greater ease: less regulation, less fighting your thoughts?
- Try some of these exercises for mental self-care.
The emotional component: Trying to understand your emotions rather than suppressing them.
- How do you care for your emotional well-being?
- What else could you do to care for your feelings?
- Try these ideas for emotion regulation.
The relational component: Finding a connection with others, avoiding isolation.
- How do your relationships breed happiness?
- How could you enhance the relationships and connections you already have?
- Try some of these ideas.
2. Developing Self-Appreciation
- How do you react to positive praise from others or yourself?
- Do you receive it easily and graciously, or do you tense up, resist, or dismiss it?
What is self-appreciation?
Self-appreciation is the act of acknowledging and recognizing the worth and value of your positive qualities.
However, appreciating our strengths and accomplishments is often easier said than done for many reasons.
First, human beings have a negativity bias, meaning that we naturally give more psychological weight to negative things or experiences than to positive things or experiences. This means we are less likely to see ourselves positively and acknowledge and appreciate our goodness, and we are more likely to focus on our negative qualities.
Second, growing up in an environment where one is discouraged from feeling proud of his or her achievements is a common barrier to self-appreciation. In these instances, appreciating one’s strengths and accomplishments can feel unnatural and subsequently uncomfortable and ‘wrong.’
Exercise: Develop Self-Appreciation
*This exercise was adapted from Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer’s Self-Appreciation exercise (seen in their 2018 book entitled ‘The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions’).
Step 1: Identify positive qualities
Write about three to five things you like and appreciate about yourself. Allow yourself to be honest and open up to what you really, deep down, like about yourself. Write as much or as little detail as you like.
Step 2: Extend appreciation to the self
Re-read your list (Step 1) and contemplate each of these positive qualities, one by one, and give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back for having each of these gifts. Close your eyes as you do this and observe any thoughts and feelings that show up.
Step 3: Record thoughts and feelings
Write down what thoughts and feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant, emerged in Step 2.
- I thought…
- I felt…
Step 4: Appreciate those who helped
Now, for each positive quality, consider who helped you develop it.
Perhaps friends, parents, teachers, or even authors of books who had a positive effect on you. Extend some gratitude and appreciation toward each of these positive influencers through writing (e.g., I am grateful to X for helping me develop [insert positive quality]).
Step 5: Sit, savor and reflect
Take a moment here to sit and savor the feeling of appreciation for yourself and for those who influenced you. Then discuss the following:
- How did it feel to give yourself appreciation for your goodness?
- Did you find any part of the exercise difficult?
- Did you find any part of the exercise easy?
- Did self-appreciation become easier when you brought in gratitude and appreciation for others?
- What did you learn from the exercise?
3. Letting Go of Self-Judgment: Find Your Mental Safe Space
Let’s take a step back from the day-to-day. Your feelings matter. Your thoughts are meaningful and important. Let’s recreate your headspace into a place you love to be.
What is self-judgment?
Self-judgment is the process of forming an opinion or reaching a conclusion based on available material about the self. If such thoughts are negative, feelings such as anxiety, anger, and sadness can emerge.
Exercise: Become aware of self-judgmental thoughts.
This exercise helps you become aware of self-critical or judgmental thoughts that emerge in the face of difficulty, such as making a mistake or reacting in some undesirable way.
Once we become aware of this type of thinking, we can notice how these thoughts influence the way we feel about ourselves and explore different ways of managing such thoughts.
Step 1: Identify judgmental thoughts
Either at the end of the day or first thing the next morning, write down every judgmental thought that you had about yourself.
Step 2: Reframe into non-judgmental thoughts
Now, do your best to reframe each of these thoughts into a non-judgmental version of the thought, based on what you were feeling and needing at the time (use our feelings and needs chart to help identify them).
Step 3: Self-accepting statement
Now, consider what you can say to yourself about yourself to support your reframed non-judgmental thought. Write down at least one self-accepting statement per each non-judgmental thought.
4. Understanding the Inner-Critic
It is when the going gets tough, when we fail or make mistakes, that we need self-compassion the most. However, for most of us it is not a self-compassionate voice that assists us in these times, but rather a harsh self-critical voice that mentally beats us up. For self-compassion to grow, we must become aware of what prevents them from being self-compassionate.
The inner critic is the voice inside our head that delivers critical, disapproving dialogues. The critiques may include statements like: “You are useless”, “You can‘t do anything right”, “You are not capable”, etc.
Exercise: The goal of the exercise is to become aware of your inner critic and the consequences of this voice in terms of emotions and motivation.
This exercise can help you to understand that the judgmental tone of your inner critic is unlikely to create a positive starting point for doing things differently.
- Which parts of yourself or your life are you most critical of?
- When you are critical of yourself, how does that criticism manifest? Do you use insults? Do you try to understand your limitations?
- What does it feel like to be self-critical?
- What type of language do you use when you are being self-critical? Can you give some examples?
- Imagine another person would speak to you, using the same words and tone that you use towards yourself when you are being self-critical. How would you react? Would you allow this?
- If you would not allow this, how come you allow your inner critic to treat you like this?
- As a result of your criticism, do you feel a sense of motivation to strive for self-improvement, or do you feel defeated?
- What would a good friend, who loves you unconditionally, say to you when you identify something about yourself that you consider a flaw, when you fail or make a mistake?
- Would it be possible to replace the inner critic with a voice that is similar to your friend’s voice (see the previous question)? What could you do?
Additional strategies for letting go of guilt and shame (your inner critic).
5. You’re Worth Protecting: Protecting & Providing For Yourself in Times of Need
Self-compassion can be thought of as having two sides: the nurturing, comforting, and soothing side and the protective, providing and motivating side.
Take, for example, a person who is experiencing burnout at work. This person might engage in comfort themselves by running themselves a hot bath and playing relaxing music at the end of a long day.
Alternatively, or additionally, this person might engage take action by speaking to work about cutting down his or her current workload.
In this exercise, we will focus on each of these aspects of self-compassion.
Choose a difficult life situation. Recall a situation that you are having difficulty with at the moment. For example, you may be experiencing stress at work, or you may have had an argument with a family member. Describe this situation in your journal.
Regarding your current difficult situation (identified in Step 1), come up with at least one internal self-compassion action:
Comforting: What is one thing that you can do to take care of your emotional needs?
Soothing: What is one thing that you can do to make yourself feel physically calmer and more at ease?
Validating: What is one thing that can you say to yourself to validate your feelings?
Regarding your current difficult situation (identified in Step 1), come up with at least one external self-compassion action:
Protecting: What is one thing that can do to stop others that are hurting you or stop the harm that you are inflicting on yourself?
Providing: What is one thing that you can do to give yourself what you need?
Motivating: How can you motivate yourself with kindness, support, and understanding, rather than criticism?
Try these tips for developing positive affirmations.
**This tool was adapted from the Mindful Self-compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer (2018) by Hugo Alberts (PhD) and Lucinda Poole (PsyD).
6. Would you Treat Your Friend This Way?
You love your friends fiercely. So why be so hard on yourself? If you wouldn’t talk to a friend like this, maybe it’s time for a new conversation.
Self-compassion is simply compassion directed inwards.
The kindness element of self-compassion involves being warm and understanding toward ourselves rather than self-critical when we are suffering. In this way, our inner dialogue is gentle and encouraging, and we acknowledge our problems and shortcomings with openness and without judgment.
Unfortunately, most of us tend to use harsh, critical language when we are going through a difficult time, such as, “Wow, that was dumb,” or “I’m a failure.”
Consider for a moment, would you say such things to a close friend or even a stranger for that matter?
Research has shown that most people are kinder to others than they are to themselves. This is even true for events or situations that are beyond our control, such as getting in a car accident.
Exercise: How Would You Treat a Friend?
Instructions: Complete these four steps to practice cultivating self-compassion.
Recall a time when a close friend suffered in some way or felt bad about him/herself. Write down what you would do and say to your friend and note the tone of voice you would use.
Now think about a time when you were struggling. Perhaps you feel bad about something in your life right now. Write down what you would do and say and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
Was there a difference between how you would respond to a friend versus how you would respond to yourself? If so, ask yourself why this may be so, and write down what might lead you to treat yourself and others so differently:
Now, write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you would respond to a close friend when you are suffering.
When things in your life do not go as planned, treat yourself as you would a good friend and see what happens.
The more you practice being compassionate towards yourself, the more natural and habitual it will become.
7. Goodbye Expectations: Identifying Personal Rules
Rules can be defined as “shoulds” that strongly influence our behaviors and our feelings. Examples of rules are, “I should work hard,” “I should be kind to other people,” “I should always be on time,” “I must not show that I am afraid,” etc.
Although these rules can help you make choices and guide your behavior, they may also cause negative emotions, like shame and stress, when you break them. It is important to develop the ability to use your rules flexibly so that your life will not be dictated by rules that may not always serve you.
Instructions: The goal of this exercise is not to eliminate personal rules, but to allow for more flexible use of them.
Step 1: Identifying rules
This week, try to note as many personal rules as possible. Become aware of thoughts like, “I should…,” “It would be better if…,” “I should not…,” etc.
Note that certain questions can also point to a personal rule, for example, “Why am I not more spontaneous?” may refer to the rule “I must be spontaneous.”
Step 2: Analyzing rules
Now look at all the rules you have written down. For each rule, answer the following questions:
- How rigidly do you apply this rule (1-10)?
- How important is this rule to you?
- To what extent does this rule contribute to your well-being?
- To what extent does this rule allow you to follow your aspirations?
Step 3: Breaking rules
Now look again at the list of your rules.
- Which of these rules is currently having the most negative effect on your well-being?
- How do these rules negatively affect your well-being? How do they hinder your aspirations?
Breaking rules or challenging them by not always following them is a very powerful way of reducing their effects.
- What can you do to break/challenge these rules or reduce their effects?
Step 4: Evaluation
After challenging a rule, evaluate this process.
- What did you experience when you broke/challenged the rule(s)?
- What happened or what thoughts and/or emotions did you experience as a result?
- How did you deal with these results/thoughts/emotions?
- How rigidly will you apply the rule(s) from now on (0-10)?
- What have you learned from this exercise?
Use these tools to shift your shoulds.
8. Focusing on Our Behavior vs. Evaluating Ourselves
We all make mistakes, and we all do things that we are not proud of from time to time. However, the way in which people evaluate their mistakes or regrettable actions can differ. While some people may see such actions as proof of being a “flawed” or “unworthy” human being, others may see them as inevitable occurrences that are merely a part of being human.
In this exercise, you will explore these two ways of evaluating mistakes or regrettable actions.
Step 1: Identify past mistakes
Make a list of 5-10 things in your past that you are not proud of or that you wish you did differently. For example, you may have forgotten a close friend’s birthday, said something unkind to someone, became overly angry at some driver, made a mistake, or treated someone unfairly.
Step 2: Evaluate yourself as a person
For each of the actions, you listed in step 1, evaluate yourself as a person for making the mistake.
- What personal characteristics could explain the mistake?
- Write down this global evaluation of yourself in the second column.
Step 3: Evaluate your behavior
Now, evaluate your behavior with regard to the mistake. What actions or behaviors could explain the mistake? (ie., limited time available, competing demands on your schedule, stress/overwhelm).
- How was it to do this exercise?
- Do you feel differently about yourself when you consider your responses in the second step versus the third step? If so, how?
- Which responses (second or third step) are more motivating in terms of improving yourself to do better next time?
- Going forward, will you aim to evaluate yourself or your behavior with regards to mistakes or regrettable behavior? Why?
Hopefully, by doing this exercise you can see the importance of focusing on your behavior versus attributing personal qualities to your “mistakes.”
9. For When Life Feels Overwhelming…Developing Self-Compassionate Thoughts and Behavior
- Am I thinking helpful and kind thoughts?
- Am I being triggered?
- If I am feeling a negative emotion, can I accept what I am feeling in the present moment?
These three questions should be considered when focusing on self-compassion.
Very often, we are much harder on ourselves than we are on our friends, family, colleagues, etc. In reality, we know what we want and can be our own guidance and support. With patience, persistence, and practice, we can be just as kind, gentle, and considerate to ourselves as we are to others. The best way to start is by training self-compassion on a daily basis.
Instructions: Try to become aware of your self-critical thoughts as much as possible.
- When you notice a self-critical thought, see if you can write down the thought using the table on the next page. Alternatively, you may record the thought using your phone or a different piece of paper.
- Next, ask yourself: what kind of thoughts would reflect more self-compassion? What would a good friend, who loves you unconditionally, say to you? Record these thoughts as well.
- Finally, think of what could be more compassionate behavior. What can you do to address the issue that is reflected by the self-critical thoughts? Make sure that the behavior is characterized by self-care and compassion, not self-disapproval or criticism.
Examples of shifting self-critical thoughts into compassionate thoughts and behaviors:
Self-Critical Thought: I am chubby.
Compassionate Thought: It has been hard for me lately and it’s okay to feel this way.
Compassionate Behavior: Taking action to stick to a gym schedule.
Self-Critical Thought: I look horrible in pictures.
Compassionate Thought: I intend to be happy.
Compassionate Behavior: Find a buddy who has a similar goal and work on your goals together.
Self-Critical Thought: I should be ashamed of myself.
Compassionate Thought: I see eating as a stress reliever.
Compassionate Behavior: That’s okay, but maybe I could think of a better strategy.
Self-Critical Thought: No one will ever love me because of how I look.
Compassionate Thought: I am beautiful just the way I am; I am deserving of love.
Compassionate Behavior: Hiring a physical trainer at your local gym.
10. Visualizing a Compassionate Self
This exercise is designed to help you envision and understand what compassionate qualities might look or feel like. You might realize that they are capable of acting in a compassionate fashion. Or even begin to understand how compassionate behavior may positively influence the people around you while encouraging your own personal growth.
Instructions: Think of the most meaningful qualities of a compassionate individual.
Here are some essential qualities:
- Genuine wisdom and maturity
- Warmth and kindness
- An aversion to casting judgment
- A desire for positive change
Imagine yourself when your behavior is informed by these qualities. Imagine you are growing in wisdom and maturity. Sit quietly while concentrating on your breath. Once sufficiently relaxed or calm, imagine yourself as a supremely compassionate person. Imagine all of your characteristics, your attitude, and your behavior.
To guide your imagination, try focusing on a few specific facets of compassion:
- You are calm and wise
- You are empathic
- You are capable of tolerating and thriving even in times of hardship
- You are warm and kind
- You enjoy being helpful and you want to relieve suffering
Use your posture and facial expression to reflect an attitude of compassion:
- Pay attention to your body
- Feel the warmth and expansion in your body
- Think about how fulfilling it feels to be kind
We hope you found these exercises helpful in building self-compassion skills. If you recognize a pattern of negative self-talk or self-criticism, you can benefit from cognitive behavior therapy or self-compassion therapy to help you make the changes you desire. Building self-compassion skills improves your emotional and mental health and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Learn more about how we can help you build self-compassion and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
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