Four Paths to Self-Compassion

It’s fair to say that it has become part of our collective understanding that it is much easier to feel compassion for others as opposed to ourselves. When friends, family or clients express to me that they are feeling low, unworthy or worried about the future I want so badly for them to understand how natural it is and that these feelings will remit if they are ridden out with patience and kindness. Yet, when it comes to myself, I tend to remain self-conscious and unsettled that I am not feeling the way I am “supposed” to be feeling.

One of the things that makes it most difficult to remain compassionate in the face of difficult feeling are those nasty and insidious should thoughts…“All of my family is around me, I shouldn’t feel so lonely,” “I have so much to be grateful for, I should feel happier,” “I’ve been waiting for my vacation all year, I should be more excited that it’s here now.” When my emotions don’t cooperate with how I think I should be feeling, I tend to look in the mirror and blame myself.

Buddha tells us that “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” I wonder how things would be different if I accepted my thoughts and emotions unconditionally, and didn’t judge myself for feeling something natural.

There’s a one hundred percent chance that self-judgment and harsh self-talk will make us feel worse. Practicing self-compassion with the most challenging emotions is more likely to weaken their intensity and help them diminish sooner. Below are four paths to self-compassion that I’m I’m committing to trying when I find myself feeling off and a little lost. These strategies come from what I would suggest to a struggling friend or client, but have much difficulty practicing with myself. This is the paradox of self-compassion.

  1. The path of permissionEach time I notice myself comparing how I feel to how I think I should be feeling, I’m going to give myself permission to take a break. Engaging with the shoulds is an exercise in futility. If I could have magically changed these emotions or turned them off, I probably would have taken the earliest opportunity to do so. Rather than berating myself for feeling something, I’m going to own what’s happening. With what was once “I shouldn’t be feeling so irritated right now,” I’m going to try “I’m feeling irritated. Maybe I need some alone time.”


  1. The path of intention. Sometimes it feels like the holidays go by in a blur and I’m left feeling let down after weeks of so much build up. At the beginning of each day, I’m going to try to identify what moment I want to be most present for.  Maybe I want to make sure I connect with my husband’s grandmother during Thanksgiving dinner. Or, I will make an effort to admire the beauty of twinkling lights on Christmas trees through windows of homes when I’m stuck in traffic. Finding meaning in small moments will make the season feel more rich and personal to me.


  1. The path of kindness. Rather than jumping right to the assumption that I’m defective for feeling stressed or sad, I might instead ask myself “If I accepted myself unconditionally, what would I say to myself right now?” Or, “If I was truly listening to my deepest needs right now, what would I ask for?” Another approach is to shift self-talk to the manner you would speak to a young child who has made a mistake. While these tactics can end up feeling really unnatural or deliberate, forcing myself to think of something more compassionate ends up highlighting how harshly I am speaking to myself.


  1. The path of curiosity. There is nothing more unsettling than feeling alone or isolated when I’m surrounded by other people. Or, sometimes I lash out at the ones I love for no apparent reason and without any understanding why. Typically, when I notice I’m feeling an emotion that doesn’t match the external environment, I respond with judgment and shut it down. My reaction to these experiences is typically “what’s wrong with you, stop it.” Rather than resorting to criticism or self-blame, I am going to try to approach these moments with curiosity. All emotions have a purpose and the potential to provide important information about our internal world. Asking myself what this emotion might really be about may actually help me get the support I need. If I’m feeling sad or crabby, maybe I need some reassurance, or a hug, or, most likely, a nap.

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