- Practicing self-compassion has mental and physical health benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety.
- Self-compassion can be particularly helpful in dealing with the effects of the pandemic.
- Self-compassion can be honed with a few key exercises.
Sometimes, you might feel like you’re your own worst critic: You chastise yourself for reading the wrong chapter of social psych, berate yourself for asking a “dumb” question in your last student gov meeting, and beat yourself up for missing a goal in the soccer game.
Self-criticizing is easy, but learning to practice self-compassion has big benefits: People who cut themselves more slack are happier, less stressed, and more productive, studies show.
The mental and physical benefits of self-compassion
Self-compassion, defined essentially as treating oneself kindly, has an obvious and powerful benefit: reducing stress. Studies show that those who actively practice self-compassion have lower activity in the sympathetic nervous system—aka your body’s fight-or-flight response—according to a 2017 review published in Health Psychology.
But the practice is also linked to physical health benefits. A 2015 study published in the same journal found that self-compassion is positively associated with good-for-you behaviors, like regular exercise, eating well, and having a healthy sleep routine.
These are benefits we could all use now more than ever. Early research suggests that self-compassion may help you cope with the extreme stress wrought by the pandemic. A study conducted in Hong Kong and published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that failing to practice self-compassion in the face of fallout from COVID-19 intensified feelings of distress.
Read on for answers to students’ commonly asked questions on self-compassion. No judgment here.
How does someone learn self-compassion? I never grew up around it, so I don’t really know how.
—Second-year graduate student, Lambton College, Ontario
Self-compassion is something we learn rather than something we are born with. It takes practice to develop the habit of being kind to yourself. Get started with these steps:
- Pay attention to yourself. Do you feel sick, tired, or stressed? Are you struggling with something?
- Rather than criticizing yourself, think about what you would say to a friend in the same situation. Say that to yourself.
- Give yourself a healthy break: Take a power nap or a hot bath, go to yoga with your roommate, check in with a friend.
How do you stop yourself from judging others?
—First-year graduate student, University of Guelph, Ontario
The judgment cycle is a hard one to break. With a little bit of effort, you can get a handle on the negativity. Here’s how:
Spot the judgments
Rather than preventing the thoughts, start by identifying them. Judgments can sometimes be tricky to spot. They include:
- Any thought about liking or not liking something or someone
- Any thought assessing whether something is “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong”
- Opinions that masquerade as “facts” (e.g., he’s a loser; anyone who believes that is an idiot)
Acknowledge the judgment without being critical.
Say to yourself: “There’s a judgment,” “Here comes the judge,” or simply “Judgment.” Keep the tone of your acknowledgement light and humorous—no judging your judgments.
Let the judgment go without buying into it.
To let a thought go, simply move your attention elsewhere. If you practice this response to your own thoughts, the judgments eventually start to slow down, leaving more room for happier stuff.
The best way to step up your self-compassion and silence your inner judge is to practice loving-kindness meditation. It’s not as strange as it seems.
What if I’m so stressed I can’t fall asleep or get any work done? My mind is often flooded with negative judgments about myself, especially regarding my ability to complete tasks in the face of anxiety and depression.
—Third-year undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario
If you are severely stressed or depressed, the self-judgment can be overwhelming, which leads to a cycle of more stress and more criticism. You may need to consult with an expert to find a way through it. As an act of self-compassion, contact your campus counseling center or wellness services and make an appointment. Their support and guidance can help you get back on track.
CampusWell survey, 2015.
Homan, K. J., & Sirois, F. M. (2017). Self-compassion and physical health: Exploring the roles of perceived stress and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychology Open, 4(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2055102917729542
Lau, B. H., Chan, C. L., & Ng, S. M. (2020). Self-compassion buffers the adverse mental health impacts of COVID-19-related threats: Results from a cross-sectional survey at the first peak of Hong Kong’s outbreak. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.585270
Sirois, F. M., Kitner, R., & Hirsch, J. K. (2015). Self-compassion, affect, and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychology: Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 34(6), 661–669. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000158