5 Ways to Be Kinder to Yourself
Many of us have a habit of extending kindness and compassion to everyone else while reserving the harshest insults and judgment for ourselves. Cultivating self-compassion might sound a little woo-woo—especially if you were raised on tough love or if the phrase “gratitude journal” makes you roll your eyes. But the truth is that you can help brighten a low mood, ease stress and feelings of anxiety, and improve your overall well‑being just by being kinder to yourself.
The Power of Self-Compassion
Being kinder to yourself starts with three key building blocks: mindfulness, an acknowledgement of our common humanity, and self-compassion. The goal is to adopt a more open and nonjudgmental stance toward yourself and your actions instead of drowning in dark feelings and thoughts, reframe your struggles as part of the universal human experience instead of your burden to carry alone, and replace that running critique of yourself with self-forgiveness and grace.
Compared to putting yourself down or fixating on your flaws, this gentle approach presents a healthier way to deal with setbacks and imperfections. Research suggests that this attitude may help you learn how to tolerate painful emotions, think more clearly about your own shortcomings, and better recognize what you need to move forward.
Studies suggest that practicing self-compassion can dial down symptoms of depression and anxiety and boost one’s ability to manage stress. This appears to be true across a wide range of situations, from navigating a divorce to caregiving, or coping with health conditions like infertility, chronic pain, or diabetes. People who score high on self-compassion (as in this self-compassion test) also tend to be more optimistic, motivated, and satisfied with their lives, research suggests.
“When we practice self-compassion, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our brain that puts the brakes on the survival response,” says Max Maisel, Ph.D., a Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist. “This allows our brain to release oxytocin—the neurotransmitter responsible for feeling connected with others—which creates feelings of safety and calm.”
The point isn’t to pity yourself or make excuses for bad behavior; it’s to give yourself the same gentleness and care you’d extend to anyone who’s struggling.
Ways to Practice Self-Compassion
While some people naturally go easier on themselves, studies suggest that self-compassion is also a skill that can be taught and honed with the right tools. Here are a few ways you can become a better friend to yourself.
1. Take 3
Next time you find yourself overwhelmed or racked by self-doubt, give yourself some emotional first aid by checking off the three steps to self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. Here’s what to do, according to Maisel:
- First, take a deep breath, take a figurative step back, and observe that this is a moment of pain (“Wow, this is really hard for me” or “Here’s sadness again”).
- Then, remember that what you’re going through is a very human experience (“Anyone would feel upset by this; I’m not alone”).
- Finally, offer yourself a kind word or gesture (“You’ve gotten through this before, and you can do it again” or “Let’s make a hot cup of tea”).
By taking time to accept that it’s okay to not be okay and to take care of yourself, these steps may help you begin to process your emotions more effectively.
2. Try the Positive Self-Talk Challenge
If you often find yourself spiraling because of a self-doubting voice in your head, repeating “No negative self-talk!” may not be enough to break the habit. To silence your inner critic, you need to closely observe how you tend to talk to yourself so you can begin to counteract the negative messages you keep sending and address triggers that lead to the same old script.
Victoria McCann, Ph.D., a licensed therapist in Martin County, Florida, says she often suggests that her patients use a three-stage process. For Stage 1, spend a week jotting down notes on your phone or in another safe place every time you engage in negative self-talk. For Stage 2, review your notes and write out how you’d challenge each negative comment. For Stage 3, use your new script in real time, “talking back” to yourself.
When you hear “I can’t do this,” for example, counter with the reality that your kinder self came up with in Stage 2: “Yes, I can. I’ve done this before, I have a plan, and I can reach out for help if I need it.”
3. Write Yourself a Love Letter
Many studies show that another way to boost self-compassion is to bring a more mindful, caring, and balanced perspective to your life by adopting another’s voice in a note to self.
Think about a personal problem that’s been making you feel inadequate or insecure—a recent mistake at work, for example, or an unsolvable family conflict. Write down every feeling that comes up, without judgment or self-editing. Then, shift your perspective and write yourself a letter from an imaginary friend, filled with compassion and wisdom.
“The best letters are written as if you were talking to someone else, because you can really allow your compassion to flow,” says Ellen Gigliotti, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, who often recommends this practice.
Reflect on aspects of the situation that are out of your control, and list examples of similar challenges that others face, to remind yourself that everyone struggles. Hold on to what you’ve written and reread it when you need a reminder of how kind you can be to yourself, suggests Gigliotti.
4. Soothe Yourself with Touch
When you’re feeling down or stressed, ask yourself: “How would I respond to a loved one who’s in pain?” suggests Barry Granek, a licensed psychotherapist in Flushing, New York. Visualize how you’d help them feel better, whether that’s a gentle hug, a squeeze of the hand, or a massage for sore muscles. Then, use self-touch to give yourself the compassion you, too, deserve.
In a 2021 study published in Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, people who practiced self-touch during lockdown—like holding a hand to their heart—reported feeling safer and also lowered their cortisol levels. Researchers believe this may be an effective tool to cope with stress because it mirrors how it feels to be supported by others.
5. Fake It Till You Make It
It’s common to feel uncomfortable or weird when you first start practicing self-compassion. If you’ve spent years tearing yourself down or pushing your own needs aside, giving yourself a pep talk or hug—or even simply acknowledging, “I am not okay today”—is new territory.
But the awkwardness is worth pushing through, even if that means starting with something smaller, like a guided meditation or, as Lena Suarez-Angelino, a licensed clinical social worker and empowerment coach in Woodbridge, New Jersey, suggests, simply asking yourself, “How can I honor my needs today?”
“Self-compassion isn’t about creating a specific feeling. It’s about the intention to bring kindness to ourselves,” Maisel says. “The more we can nourish this intention, the more real it will feel over time.”
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