Making resolutions to hit the gym, eat more vegetables, and get a grip on our finances are among the most common goals we set for ourselves in the New Year. Some experts at The Royal, however, suggest that those of us who want to make a meaningful change to benefit our mental wellness narrow our focus down to one resolution this year: practicing self-compassion.
Fostering feelings of self-compassion can boost feelings of self-worth, resilience, well-being, and decrease feelings of depression and anxiety.
The idea of being kind to yourself is not the same as self-compassion, although they are related.
“Compassion is the way you respond to suffering and it's a way of recognizing that you're having a tough time,” says Peter Winfield, a former client of The Royal and vice-chair of the Client Advisory Council at The Royal.
When we show compassion, we direct kindness towards somebody who is suffering. When we demonstrate self-compassion, we recognize that suffering is happening within us and direct the kindness inwards.
One of the key differences between kindness and compassion – and its cousin empathy – is taking action.
“Taking action is a critical component to compassion and self-compassion – doing something about the suffering that you recognize,” says Winfield. “It's about deliberately turning towards suffering and doing that with kindness.”
Am I good enough?
The truth of the matter is that many of us find it easier to show compassion to others instead of ourselves.
Winfield points out that our tendency to measure ourselves against others can lead us to question if we are good enough. The good news is that we can learn how to turn such thoughts around.
When negative self-talk pops up, Dr. Melissa Bolton, a psychologist at The Royal, encourages people to ask themselves: ‘Would I say this to my loved one?’ If the answer is no, it’s time for some self-reflection.
The next question we can ask ourselves leads to that “action” part of the self-compassion equation: “What can I do for myself in this moment?” The answer might be as simple as taking a deep breath, or calling a friend. The key here is to do something.
Mental health clinicians have long incorporated aspects of self-compassion in different types of therapy. It’s an important component of evidence-based psychotherapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
“It's a very powerful agent in recovery and wellness,” says Bolton.
There are many different ways to practice self-compassion. We can mute our inner bully, endeavor to eat balanced meals when we can, and make a point of getting a good night’s sleep, but it really begins with recognizing that we are struggling.
“By creating space for yourself to recognize and acknowledge your needs and emotions, it’s also acknowledging that all these things are part of the human experience,” says Dr. Nathalie Freynet, a psychologist at The Royal. “To allow ourselves to notice them, name them, sit with them, that is an example of self-compassion.”
While being intentional about prioritizing care for ourselves is an act of self-compassion, it’s also important to know that what works for one person may not work for another. Bolton suggests finding an activity that recharges our batteries and also aligns with our values.
Winfield points out that people are most likely to gravitate to the more obvious examples of self-care around diet and physical activity and tend to forget about some of the more difficult actions we can take in the name of self-care such as letting go of expectations, setting healthy boundaries, and talking to others about the struggles we face.
“When we’re struggling, it helps to remember that we’re not alone and that everyone suffers in their own way. It doesn't remove the pain or the struggle, but it does help us stay connected,” says Winfield.
Here are some ways to foster self-compassion, as recommended by our experts:
- Practice being kind to yourself.
- Cultivate a kinder inner voice.
- Acknowledge your emotions and try to accept them without judgment.
- Define your needs and values and let them guide you as you work towards good mental wellness and a renewed sense of self.