So often we feel stuck in our lives. Maybe we’re in a dead-end job, or we can’t seem to find a healthy romantic relationship, or we keep procrastinating on starting to exercise. As we struggle to improve our lives, we may become dispirited, feeling as if we’ve missed our chance and it’s just too late.
Why do so many of us fail to change? It’s not because change is impossible: All of us have the ability to transform our life at any age, thanks to neuroplasticity—the capacity of our brain to change throughout our lives. Instead, it’s often because of the critical, judgmental voices in our heads—the ones that tell us we are not good enough and berate us for any mistakes or shortcomings.
Science suggests that constant self-judgment and shame shut down the learning centers of the brain, robbing us of the resources we need to learn and grow. Shame locks us into repeating vicious cycles, instead of helping us form new healthy behaviors. Further, shame undermines our belief in ourselves, marooning us on an island of helplessness and self-loathing. As Brené Brown aptly puts it, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
What’s the alternative? Self-compassion—bringing kindness and care to our own suffering. It might seem surprising that self-compassion can bring about great change, but modern science is backing this up. Research suggests that an attitude of kindness strengthens our ability to learn from our mistakes, which can expand our perspective and make us more creative and resourceful.
Self-compassion and change
Research bears out the different ways that self-compassion helps us make changes in our lives. For example, people who are kinder toward themselves are better equipped to make progress toward health-related goals, such as losing weight, exercising, quitting smoking, or recovering from substance abuse. When we’re self-compassionate, instead of shaming ourselves, we are able to face our struggles head-on with all of our resources available to us.
Self-compassion is also associated with the release of oxytocin (the love hormone that facilitates safety and connection), which reduces our distress and increases our feelings of care and support. As psychologist Paul Gilbert proposes, when we practice self-compassion, we are deactivating the threat-defense system and activating the care system in our bodies.
This soothing effect can help us when we are going through difficult times that require us to make changes in our lives, serving as a powerful source of strength and resilience. For example, David Sbarra and his colleagues found that participants who were going through a divorce and displayed more self-compassion when talking about their breakup were healthier, happier, and more resilient. Similarly, soldiers returning from Afghanistan who were taught self-compassion had lower levels of post-traumatic stress disorder.
This research bodes well for those of us who want to make changes in our own lives. Whatever we struggle with, practicing self-compassion can help us make headway on our goals and aspirations. Science is showing that the path to a happier and more fulfilled life starts with growing an attitude of kindness.
The keys to self-compassion
If you’re wondering how to start being kinder toward yourself, the simplest way is to try treating yourself as you would treat a dear friend who is struggling.
Of course, sometimes this isn’t so easy, especially after a lifetime of self-judgment and shame. It requires practice to carve out these new pathways of kindness toward ourselves. How to do this? First, we must understand the key elements of self-compassion and then practice them a little every day. Below are the three elements as articulated by self-compassion pioneer Dr. Kristin Neff.
1. Mindfulness: The first step is mindfulness—learning to pay attention to our moment-to-moment experiences without judging them. We can’t be kind to ourselves unless we first acknowledge we are in pain. In tough times, mindfulness helps us pause, breathe, and see our suffering clearly.
2. Kindness: Second is kindness. Self-compassion adds the gentle touch of care when we are in pain. When things go wrong, we often try to suppress the pain, berate ourselves, or leap into problem-solving mode. But once again: Imagine how you might support a friend who is suffering. Would you tell your friend to forget about it? Would you call your friend an “idiot”? Would you instantly try to fix the problem? Or would you offer your friend kindness, and let them know you care—that no matter what happened, you love them?
3. Common humanity: The final step is to recognize our common humanity, which reminds us that we are not alone in our suffering. Common humanity helps us remember that other people also get divorced or have sick children or get a flat tire. Our belief that this is “my” personal problem and that we are the “only one” suffering isolates and separates us. Self-compassion helps us reframe our situation in light of our shared human experience.
By practicing these three elements of self-compassion, we discover untapped reserves of strength, resilience, and wisdom that help us survive the storm. What’s more, self-compassion strengthens our resources to better navigate future storms. This is one of the alchemical powers of self-compassion: It simultaneously soothes the negative and grows the positive.
A self-compassion practice
No matter where you are in life, no matter what pain you’ve experienced or mistakes you’ve made, your future is spotless, and you can begin again. One small step at a time, you can practice self-compassion and move in the direction of greater health, happiness, and joy. Below I offer a practice from my new book, Good Morning, I Love You, to help you develop the three elements of self-compassion.
Begin by sitting quietly and allowing your attention to rest on the natural flow of your breath, rising and falling in your body.
We all have something we are struggling with. Gently ask yourself: What pain or difficulty needs my attention? Listen to whatever arises. Stay with your direct experience in the body. Gently label any emotions that arise: “sadness… fear…frustration.” Stay open, nonjudgmental, and curious. (Mindfulness)
Imagine what you might say to a dear friend facing a similar challenge as you. How might you care for your friend? What might you say? How might you support and encourage her? (Kindness)
Finally, remind yourself how natural it is for hard times to arise for all of us. Reflect on all the other people in the world who might be in a similar situation right now. Offer compassion to yourself and all the people who are struggling right now. (Common humanity)
When you are finished, take a moment to thank yourself for dedicating this time to cultivating pathways of self-compassion. Feel the wholesomeness of this practice, and trust that the seeds you have planted will continue to grow and blossom. Self-compassion is not a quick fix—it takes strength, courage, and faith. The key is to rest in the comfort of this universal truth: You can be your own inner ally.