Ali Miller, MFT - Helping adults live more authentic, empowered & connected lives

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Self-Compassion: What it is and How to Practice it

I was recently interviewed about self-compassion for an article by Margarita Tartakovsky on a popular mental health website called Here is a link to the article, and I copied the questions and answers below it.

Margarita Tartakovsky: What are the top 3 to 5 reasons you think practicing self-compassion is important?

Ali Miller: The opposite of self-compassion is self-criticism, and self-criticism is an experience of inner conflict. We are not experiencing inner peace when we are criticizing ourselves; we are, in essence, at war with ourselves. This inner violence is similar to outer violence, in that it hurts, divides, destroys, and takes up a lot of energy. Practicing self-compassion is a way of practicing inner peace, and I believe the more people are at peace inside themselves, the more peace there is in the world. So I see practicing self-compassion as a way of promoting peace.
Part of being human is experiencing pain. When we criticize ourselves for being in pain, we only add to our suffering. When we relate to our pain with self-compassion, we suffer less. And we feel more connected to others who suffer, less isolated.
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, the prominent researcher on self-compassion, the research consistently finds that greater self-compassion is linked to less anxiety and depression. She and her colleagues also found that self-compassion is associated with feelings of social connectedness and life satisfaction, and that self-compassionate people tend to experience more happiness, optimism, curiosity, and positive affect than those who lack self-compassion. As Neff wrote, “By wrapping one’s pain in the warm embrace of self-compassion, positive feelings are generated that help balance the negative ones.”

Margarita Tartakovsky: How do you define self-compassion?

Ali Miller: Self-compassion is a way of relating to yourself when you are in emotional or physical pain with a caring and kind interest and a desire to help yourself. It’s an experience of open-heartedness towards yourself when you are suffering, such as when you are feeling afraid, angry, sad, ashamed, disappointed, lonely, jealous, or stressed. These feelings can be so unpleasant that our tendency is to try to get rid of them, and one way we try to get rid of them is by criticizing ourselves for feeling them. Unfortunately, this attempt to get rid of our suffering backfires in the form of inner conflict, wherein one part of ourselves is feeling the unpleasant feeling, and another part is resisting feeling that feeling, often through self-criticism. Self-compassion is a way of moving towards the unpleasant feeling by acknowledging it, allowing it, and caring about it. For example, say you are feeling jealous after learning that your coworker got a raise and you didn’t. Self-criticism would sound something like, “I shouldn’t feel jealous; nice people don’t feel jealous,” whereas self-compassion would sound something like, “Ouch, I’m feeling jealous. This is painful. What can I do to care for myself in this moment of suffering?”

Margarita Tartakovsky: What are several ways people who are more used to criticizing, judging and pushing themselves ease into self-compassion?

Ali Miller: I think that most of us are more used to criticizing, judging, and pushing ourselves, to varying degrees. Self-compassion is something most of us in this culture have to work at. I find the following ways help people ease into relating to themselves with more compassion:

  • Practice noticing how you are feeling throughout the day. We get so busy and so consumed by our activities and thoughts that we often don’t even know how we’re feeling. Stopping several times throughout the day to take a breath or two and ask yourself, “How am I doing?” can help you begin to pay more attention to yourself. This attention is key to practicing self-compassion, because if you’re not paying attention, your habitual way of relating to yourself will operate unconsciously.

  • Practice noticing how you relate to yourself when you are experiencing difficult emotions. Is your habit to criticize yourself? To try to talk yourself out of what you’re feeling? To ignore your feelings? One question I like to ask is, “Am I relating to myself like an abusive parent, like a neglectful parent, or like a loving parent?”

  • When you notice that you are experiencing a difficult emotion, such as any form of fear, anger, sadness, shame, disappointment, jealousy, or stress, put your hand on your heart. This is a motion of compassion, and a way of reminding yourself that you care about yourself.

  • Another way to access self-compassion is this: When something challenging happens notice how you are feeling (not just what you are thinking about yourself, someone else, or the situation), and then ask yourself what you are needing. I find it helpful to think about it this way: Emotions are signals to our needs being either met or unmet, and if you are experiencing a difficult emotion, it is likely that you have some unmet needs in that moment. Getting curious about what needs are unmet is a way of relating to yourself with compassion. For example, if you notice that you are feeling angry, it might be because you’re needing to be heard. Taking action on behalf of yourself might then take the form of self-expression. I find these three questions really helpful for people: 1. What am I feeling? 2. What am I needing? 3. What can I do to try to meet my needs? I often point people to this list of universal human needs that is used in Nonviolent Communication:

  • It can help to think of yourself as having two parts: an inner child, and an inner loving adult. When you are in emotional or physical pain, imagine that the part of you that is in pain is a child who is needing loving attention. It is then the role of the inner loving adult to care for the inner child. Our hearts tend to soften towards children more than they do to adults, so this way of thinking can help us embrace a more self-compassionate attitude.

  • It can also help to think about how you would relate to your best friend if your best friend was going through what you’re going through. It’s often easier for us to have compassion for our loved ones than for ourselves, so this can be a bridge to accessing compassion. Then, turn that compassion inward, toward yourself.

Margarita Tartakovsky:  What are common myths about self-compassion?

Ali Miller: I think some people hear the term “self-compassion” and think it’s selfish, indulgent, or narcissistic. Or else they think it’s too “touchy-feely,” too “soft.” I think compassion in general is often confused with pity, so when people hear “self-compassion” they may think self-pity. I think the thinking goes something like, “If I don’t push myself I won’t improve.” It’s similar to thinking, “If we care for someone too much they won’t learn how to take care of themselves.” What I have seen is the opposite, though: that the more compassionate I am towards myself, the less energy is being spent on the inner conflict, and the more energy I have to devote to taking action to care for myself and others. 

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