As a Licensed Psychologist and therapist in Austin TX, clients come into my office with widely varying concerns, from professional growth to relief from trauma-related stress. At some point during our work, clients often let me in to how they judge themselves, criticize themselves, or otherwise see themselves as not enough or not worthy. Others talk to me about feeling chronically alone, feeling unworthy of love and care, or feeling like they’re not good enough, attractive enough, or smart enough to deserve what they most deeply yearn for. They’re all far from being a close friend or resource to themselves.
Perhaps you, reader, struggle with self-criticism every time you look in the mirror, miss a deadline, or “over-” indulge in a treat. Maybe guilt and shame flare up every time you notice yourself procrastinating or making a mistake. Or perhaps you believe, too, that you’ll always feel lonely, and you can connect this to not believing anyone could want to be with someone as depressive, boring, ugly, stressed, or somehow worthless as you believe yourself to be. Ouch. That’s not being much of a friend to yourself at all.
Well, there’s good news and bad news.
First, the hard truth. Negative self-beliefs, self-criticism, and self-judgment are all hugely limiting. These tendencies often lead to feelings of depression and worthlessness. Folks who are highly self-critical tend to feel more guilt and shame when something goes wrong, they struggle with perfectionism, and they can experience body image issues or concerns with eating and food. When people are so self-judgmental that they expect others to judge them too, they can withdraw from others, act submissive or overly passive, or experience isolation and loneliness. Does this sound like anyone you know?
Now for the good news: there is a learnable alternative. Self-criticism, self-judgment, and low self-worth, as deeply ingrained as they can be, can all be successfully treated in relationship with a trusted therapist. The most powerful tool I help clients develop in changing these beliefs and behaviors is called self-compassion.
What is self-compassion and how do you become your own best friend?
Self-compassion is a life-changing resource and practice of friendship to yourself that consists of
- being mindful of your painful experiences,
- seeing your suffering as part of the universal experience, and
- treating yourself as you would a beloved, precious friend.
This combination of mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness changed my life when I first discovered it. Practicing self-compassion, as I’ve demonstrated in peer-reviewed research, leads to dramatically reduced depression, lower levels of anxiety, better coping with negative emotions, and a whole host of positive experiences like happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity, exploration, and personal initiative. What’s more, self-compassion is a practice that anyone can develop. But wait, you might say to yourself, would all this self-kindness stuff actually be helpful?
“If I don’t push myself with self-criticism, won’t I just settle for mediocrity as my ‘own best friend’?”
I commonly hear a concern that developing self-compassion will lead to complacency and low motivation. But in practice, this doesn’t actually happen. When people think self-compassionately about their weaknesses, past failures, and transgressions, they experience MORE motivation to change, and they’re more committed to learning from past mistakes. Think about how children are motivated: not through derision and blame but through kind words like, “It’s okay, honey, you’ll try your best next time.”
“If I’m kind to myself, won’t I end up indulgent and undisciplined?”
Some clients express the fear that self-compassion will lead to being “too soft” on themselves or to behaviors they’d rather avoid, like binges of alcohol, drugs, or food. Not so! In my experience and in the findings of researchers across the globe, self-compassion actually leads to more healthy actions. People who practice self-compassion are more likely to seek mental and physical health care when they need it, drink less alcohol, have an easier time quitting smoking, and even exercise more for internally motivated reasons. For more on misconceptions and myths related to self-compassion, see this article from Kristin Neff, the leading researcher on self-compassion.
Making the change happen: How to be your own best friend
In graduate school, I was fortunate to get to study with Kristin Neff, whose work has informed a host of interventions that increase self-compassion and battle self-criticism and self-judgment. I’ve also conducted my own peer-reviewed and published research studies on growing self-compassion, most recently leading an experiment on the effectiveness of an online program designed to increase self-kindness. There are a lot of helpful tools out there, and they all boil down to (1) learning the three components of self-compassion (mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness) and (2) practicing enacting and embodying these components.
One of my favorite tools for activating and increasing self-compassion is a quick but helpful exercise for becoming your best friend. I use it so often with clients that I created a handout (below) to explain how to do it outside of our sessions. The exercise is helpful both when in pain and when recalling a time of pain, and it goes like this:
- To prepare: Sit in a relaxed position and get comfortable. If you like, you can place your hand over your chest, give yourself a hug, or make another loving gesture towards yourself.
- Say to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering,” “I’m having a hard time right now,” or another phrase that brings mindfulness to your present experience. Let those words sink in.
- Say to yourself, “This struggle is a part of life,” “I’m not alone in this pain,” or something else that reminds you that others feel this pain too. Sit with that feeling of common humanity.
- Say to yourself, “May I be kind to myself,” “I’m here for you,” or something else you might say to a beloved friend. Use a warm, caring tone, and consider using a loving name for yourself (“my dear,” “sweet love”) if it feels right.
Through following these steps, you’ve reminded yourself of the three components of self-compassion and offered yourself profound kindness. Just by trying the exercise! Once you’ve offered yourself this self-compassion, notice your reactions. Maybe you’re feeling more calm and cared for now—notice that. Maybe you’re frustrated, thinking, “It didn’t work at all!”—just notice that. What comes up next is a telling reaction either to explore further or to encourage you to go on in your journey toward moving on from self-criticism, self-judgment, and isolation.
What’s next, friends?
After trying the above exercise, I encourage you to share your experience of the exercise with a trusted resource, whether a therapist, a close friend, or yourself (perhaps through a journal entry or a compassionate imagined dialogue). You can also download my handout (below) to do this exercise again another time. If you’re curious about how much self-compassion you’re starting with, you might take this test of how self-compassionate you are now and share your results with me. Or maybe you’re ready to try a guided meditation for self compassion like the one here.
How did the exercise go for you? What thoughts do you have on becoming your best friend? Share them with me in the comments below.