How to Think and Behave with Self-Compassion

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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In an earlier post  I wrote about our need to cultivate self-compassion. I pointed out the dangers of being too self-critical and examined a few of the reasons we beat ourselves up. Now I want to focus on thinking and behaving. Simply by changing the way we think, we can change the way we feel and behave, with a view to treating ourselves in a way we deserve.

Thinking with Compassion

Critical self-thinking can sometimes be motivating. By that I mean the sort of thinking that goes along the lines of, “Come on, you’ve sat around long enough—time to get moving.” We probably all use these thought processes to pull ourselves out of lethargy. Our internal voice is a part of who we are, but it oversteps the mark with ruthless, unforgiving, and even cruel statements. Using our own thinking to punish ourselves leads us into negative emotions and emotionally stilted behavior. For example, you know you should be studying but your internal voice says you’re useless as a student. As a result you feel depressed and give up.

But you’re an intelligent person, so why not turn things to your advantage? First, try to work out why you’re thinking so self-critically. Is someone else putting you down? If you’re a struggling student, is the course material structured and accessible? There are reasons why we think the way we do, so the first step is to identify the possible factors. This helps to explain why your emotions are troubled. Neutralize negative thinking and you validate your emotions. If you find the process a little alien, imagine what you might say to a close friend, and apply the same principles to yourself.

The next step is to construct a more compassionate alternative narrative. For the self-critical student, for instance, it may go along the lines of, “These feelings say more about the way the course material is presented than about me and my deficiencies. I know I’m bright enough to learn so I think I’ll change direction and go and see someone about this.”

Compassionate Behavior

If you’ve tackled the challenge of compassionate thinking you’ll find compassionate behavior so much easier to achieve. It involves a broad spectrum of activity but we can simplify things a little by breaking them down into two categories: yourself and others.

Behaving compassionately towards yourself when times are tough or troubling is an important way to speed recovery. You may already have daily routines that help. For some people it’s getting into a hot bath with a glass of wine. Others choose activities like cycling, walking, singing, or playing a musical instrument. What you do is less important than the effect it has on you, so if hugging your dog or watching a favorite movie works for you, then that’s the thing to do.

We can actually build self-compassion by extending kindness to others. Some of the simplest actions not only help us feel good about ourselves but they lift other people in the process. Just remembering to thank others—to put yourself out a little to help and say something nice—is all that’s required.

Grasp these fundamentals and work with them. If you’re used to being a harsh taskmaster with yourself you’ll find it a challenge. Stick with it, though, and you’ll reap the rewards.