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Headline: Give yourself a breakBalance
Give yourself
a break

Studies show that a lack of self-compassion
can negatively affect your mental health and well-being
By Julie-Anne McCarthy Mar/Apr 2017
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Are you hard on yourself?

Do you find that you are able to be kind and understanding with your friends, family, colleagues, even strangers, but it seems difficult to feel the same kindness and understanding for yourself?

Many of us are very critical of our own thoughts, actions and feelings. Studies have shown that this lack of compassion for ourselves can have a very negative impact on our mental health and well-being. New research is shedding light on how we can cultivate and benefit from self-compassion.

Having compassion means having an understanding or empathy for someone's pain, followed by the desire to take action in order to remove that pain. For example, we are feeling compassion when we wish we could take away our friend's sadness, or when we show understanding toward someone who is discouraged or frustrated.

Self-compassion is really no different from having compassion toward others. It involves being kind and patient toward ourselves, rather than ignoring our pain or being overly critical of our shortcomings. It is about taking the time to recognize and acknowledge when we are going through a difficult time, and thinking about how we can care for ourselves in that moment. If we are able to feel moved by other people's suffering and show kindness in those moments, in essence, we should be able to apply the same emotional principle to ourselves. This may be easy to understand but difficult to do.

There are a number of factors that can interfere with our ability to feel self-compassion. From a very basic survival perspective, humans are programmed to recall negative events in order to survive in the wild. By remembering mistakes and near misses, humans learned to live through life-threatening situations. Our brains are therefore built for survival, which may in turn make it difficult to let go of our failures. Also, in present-day we are constantly faced with a number of societal pressures and opportunities for comparison with others, which makes it easier to see our flaws and short-comings rather than our strengths. As a result, we have a tendency to judge our own actions more harshly, and we struggle to feel compassion for ourselves in the same way that we do for others.

The good news is that we are also hard-wired for compassion, meaning that this is not something that we necessarily need to learn how to feel, we simply need to learn how to apply it to ourselves. Studies around neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to reorganize itself) suggest that it may be possible to make small changes to the way our brains operate. This means that if we tend to be overly critical of ourselves, with practice, it is possible to change that automatic negative thinking toward a more caring way of thinking.

Dr. Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, proposes that there are three important elements of self-compassion: kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. The first element reminds us that making mistakes and being imperfect is difficult, but inevitable, which is why it is important to be kind to ourselves. The second element adds that everyone makes mistakes and goes through hard times; it is part of "shared human experience." This means that while we are not perfect, we are not alone. The third element encourages us to accept all of our emotions as they come, without judgment, and without forcing them away. By accepting our emotions through a lens of kindness and patience, we work through them in a more effective way.

Fortunately, the surge of evidence supporting the benefits of self-compassion has led to an increased number of opportunities to learn how to use this practice in our own lives. There are now many websites, books, mobile apps, workshops and classes available to the public.

Overall, self-compassion is an effective and important part of self-care that can help us cope with a variety of situations that are common to us all. By being kind, patient, and understanding with ourselves we become more grounded and resilient in the face of adversity. The key is to think about how we would treat someone else, and to remember that it is normal to feel pain or make mistakes; after all, we are all only human.

Julie-Anne McCarthy is a mental health promotion program specialist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.