Learning self-compassion

Self compassion is the attitude which underpins all other depression-beating strategies. If we can learn to treat ourselves kindly and support ourselves through our struggles then everything else becomes a lot easier.

Your own worst enemy?

Imagine if you had someone following you around all day watching your every move and criticising whatever you did? If no matter how hard you tried you were never good enough? You would soon start feeling demoralised, defeated and hopeless.

When you get into the habit of self bullying that’s exactly what you’re doing to yourself! You may feel you ‘deserve’ the criticism – perhaps you’re used to being criticised by others or perhaps you have a perfectionist habit which distorts your self evaluations?

But bullying of any kind is unacceptable. Depression is a bully and it preys on and reinforces the habit of self bullying. To beat depression you need to sort your inner bully out!


Learning to be kind to ourselves

Self compassion is both an attitude and a skill that we can learn. We can train our minds to bring greater compassion to all of our thoughts and feelings.  Here are a few exercises to get you started:

What would you say to a friend?

Tune in to your inner bullying voice and take note of the typical things it says to you. Now think about whether you would ever speak this way to a friend? It’s unlikely! See if you can change the ‘tone’ and words to how you might say it to a friend that you cared about…

What would a friend say to you?

And now imagine what a really good friend, or perhaps your ‘guardian angel’, might say to you instead. A really good friend or guardian angel is someone who accepts and likes you as you are and is always kind and gentle to you. For example:

  • You might catch yourself saying something like, “You idiot! You’ve left your essay to the last minute yet again. Why do you always do that? You’re just lazy and useless.”
  • Your guardian angel might say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Poor you, it’s horrid for you to be feeling so stressed and overwhelmed. Maybe you’re leaving things to the last minute because you’re setting such impossible standards for yourself that it’s hard to get started? Just do what you can now and give yourself a break.”

Give yourself a hug

It might feel a bit silly at first, but a first step towards changing your critical voice might be to just give yourself a kindly physical gesture instead. Stroke yourself on the arm or hand in a soothing, comforting way, or gently massage your temples. Physical soothing like this gives messages to your brain which will help alleviate the harshness of your inner words.

Mindfulness and self compassion

Growing bodies of research are showing that increasing our self compassion is much better for our psychological health than focusing on ‘self esteem’. A leading self-compassion researcher in the US, Dr Kristin Neff, defines self compassion as having 3 main components: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. Recognising that we are flawed human beings just like everyone else is clearly an important basis for treating ourselves kindly. And one of the best ways to train yourself to be more self compassionate is to practise the ancient life skill of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about being able to focus on the present moment without judgement, in an attitude of curiosity and acceptance. Read more about it on the ‘Practising mindfulness’ page in the next section.┬áMany university counselling services provide mindfulness workshops and courses and it is a life skill that underpins living well for everyone. Find out more about other long-term happiness and life skills in the next section.

The Take Action links on this page includes the usual worksheet to start you off with self compassion skills. You may also surprise yourself by using Dr Kristin Neff’s test to see how self compassionate you are (or not!). There are many other resources on her site, including explanatory videos telling you more about self compassion, more self compassion exercises to try, and mp3 downloads for practising self-compassion meditations.

Next: Living well

Take Action

Self compassion exercises Self-compassion quiz


Self bullying
Taking care of yourself
Coping with self harming urges