Self-compassion, AKA being a little nicer to ourselves

Self-compassion means giving yourself the same kindness and care that you would give a good friend.






“Lazy. Lazy lazy lazy. What’s wrong with you? Why have you wasted so much time? How are you going to handle a real job if you can’t even stick to a basic writing schedule?”

As I struggled to finish my dissertation, the voice inside my head got increasingly … mean. And when it got on a roll, nastier words would pop up, like ugly little gremlins: failure. Embarrassing. Worthless.

But somehow when my friend and labmate Penny would call me, overwhelmed and despairing about her research, that nasty voice was nowhere to be found. Instead, a swell of care rose within me as I listened, empathized, and gently tried to help her find next steps that felt manageable. Talk about a double standard.

Many of us default to harsh, judging, punishing self-talk when dealing with ourselves, even as we respond with genuine kindness to our loved ones. Unfortunately, our inner critics are usually pretty creative in tailoring their negativity to the situation … for instance, can anyone relate to some version of: The pandemic has been going on for over 10 months; how am I still so unproductive??? Everyone else is used to it by now! [Not true or fair, by the way.]

Self-compassion is the idea of giving ourselves the same kindness and care that we would give to a good friend. Dr. Kristin Neff has conceptualized self-compassion as involving three elements: self-kindness, recognition of common humanity, and mindfulness. For me, this translates as:

1. softening my approach to myself – responding to my flaws, failures, or human shortcomings with gentleness and grace rather than harshness;

2. when harshness or anxiousness flares up, I name it: “this is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life.”

3. slowing down and just kind of letting reality be however it is, letting go (for a moment) of the urge to struggle or rage against it.

Then I try to take a breath and ask myself, kindly, what would be the most useful thing to do next.

Kristin Neff has some lovely self-compassion exercises on her website, which can help you reflect on your inner dialogue and nudge it in more compassionate directions; or, here’s a 2-minute video with tips on understanding and beginning to practice self-compassion.

Some people instinctively worry that self-compassion means giving up, foregoing responsibility, or “letting ourselves off the hook” too easily. But evidence suggests that angrily “beating ourselves up” isn’t actually very motivating; in fact, it can keep us stuck (listen to Dr. Laurie Santos and Dr. Kristin Neff discuss “dumping your inner drill sergeant” on The Happiness Lab podcast).

If you want to learn more, you could check out books like Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself or The self-compassion skills workbook (the latter is available through the UBC library). Checking out the UBC Grad Student Online Support Group can also help build self-compassion, as you extend support and kindness to others and receive it in turn. You can also just check in with yourself when you hear your inner critic firing up, asking: “Am I being kind and understanding to myself? Do I acknowledge shortcomings and failure as experiences shared by everyone? Am I keeping my negative feelings in perspective?” (I borrowed these questions from this op-ed in Canadian Family Physician). And if your inner voice is really committed to that big self-criticism stick, the counsellors and life coaches at UBC Student Assistance Plan or (for postdocs) your EFAP would be happy to help you practice swapping it out for a more compassionate carrot.