When the going gets tough, do you get even tougher on yourself?
Tearing yourself down with self-criticism or building yourself up with inflated self-esteem are two sure ways to prolong a hard time.
Fortunately there’s a simpler way to relieve your suffering: self-compassion.
What does self-compassion entail? “It’s not about judging yourself positively, it’s relating to yourself kindly—whether you’re succeeding or failing,” says leading self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
When a relationship “fails,” in the case of divorce, having self-compassion can decrease distress, according to recent research in Psychological Science. Our Relationship Expert David Sbarra, Ph.D. wrote of his study exclusively for YouBeauty.
COLUMN: Self-Compassion Eases the Pain of Divorce
“There are three pillars of self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness,” Dr. Sbarra says. Exercising these components can help you deal with the loss of a job or relationship, or even just cultivate more self-compassion everyday.
Here, we’ll explain what each of these pillars mean, and show you how to apply them to your daily life, with a journal exercise from Dr. Neff’s book “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.”
If you’re endlessly ruminating about the last argument you had, chances are you’re not being mindful. It’s difficult to deal with your present situation when you’re getting carried away by the dramatic storyline of what's upsetting you in your life.
If you find yourself at work still going over the dialogue of your morning fight with your partner, recognize that it's upsetting you, and then focus on the present moment: that deadline you have coming up. You can address your concerns with a talk in person, rather than try to solve a problem at home from your desk at work.
A simple place to start being mindful? “Just noticing that you’re lost in the story,” Dr. Neff says. To break out of the “rumination broken record player effect,” see what’s actually happening, without ignoring it or blowing it out of proportion, she says.
Journal: Take a moment to write about how an event made you feel during the day. The example Dr. Neff gives is getting angry at a waitress and not leaving a tip.
Try to recount the event without putting judgment on it—neither downplaying it nor hyping it up. An objective way to be aware of your feelings about the waitress is writing: “I was frustrated because she was being so slow. I got angry, overreacted and felt foolish afterwards.”
Practicing meditation can also help you start to notice your thought patterns more objectively. There are many different forms, and Dr. Neff specifically offers guided self-compassion meditations on her website.
2. Common Humanity
When you hit a hard time, do you feel all alone in what you’re experiencing?
“Divorce and interpersonal loss are very isolating and can lead to loneliness,” Dr. Sbarra says. This is when the “common humanity” component comes into play—you can normalize your experience and think that you’re not the first person to go through this, and you won’t be the last. “Many people have dealt with this and recovered well. This connects you to the bigger experience, making you feel part of something that people have experienced,” Dr. Sbarra says.
Journal: On a smaller scale with the restaurant mishap, you could put things in perspective by realizing and writing that “Everyone overreacts sometimes.”
You might also want to think about the various conditions underlying the event—realizing that different circumstances affect your behavior lets yourself off the hook a bit. (Like say: I was late for my doctor’s appointment and this made me especially grumpy.)
The last pillar of self-compassion sounds simple, but it still takes some practicing.
“Self-kindness is not only releasing self-judgment but also active self soothing,” Dr. Neff says.
So aside from forgiving yourself and not beating yourself up, go out of your way to reassure yourself and offer understanding and caring words.
Journal: Try writing some kind, accepting words like “It’s OK, you messed up but it wasn’t the end of the world…”
If you have trouble changing your tone, consider this: “Most people know how to be kind and supportive to a good friend,” so Dr. Neff suggests thinking of what you’d say to them.
And it’s not all talk that makes a difference.
“Dont overlook the power of self-soothing touch,” Dr. Neff says. She suggests putting your hands on your heart or giving yourself a little hug, which can reduce the stress hormone cortisol. This soothing touch also taps into the caregiving/attachment system, releasing the cuddle hormone oxytocin. (Not comfortable trying this yet? Start with asking your friend with a shoulder rub, or even treat yourself to a massage.)
If you don’t think you’re harsh enough on yourself to deserve this TLC, keep this in mind: “We all carry some sort of self-hatred or judgment and it’s so subtle that some people don’t even know it,” Happiness Expert Matthew D. Della Porta, M.A. says.
You can test how self-compassionate you are with Dr. Neff’s Self-Compassion Scale.
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