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Being Kind to Oneself: The Forgotten Art of Self-Compassion and Why It Is Important

Being nice to other people can make us more popular, can improve cooperation and create a more comfortable and healthy environment. And it's just a nice thing to do in general. So when being nice to other people is nice, why not be nice to yourself? By that I don’t mean massages and loads of ice cream (even though these are also good ways of being nice to oneself), but “nice” in the psychological sense: compassion). Compassion means treating someone with kindness.

We live in a world where we are under constant pressure from the expectations our colleagues, family and friends have about what we should do, how and how fast we should do it. Sometimes it might become too much. And then we find out that most of these expectations do not come from our boss, partner, or friends. They often come from ourselves, and those expectations are harder to let go of. Moreover, we don’t usually expect the same things from other people. So why should we expect them from ourselves?

I know, there are things that need to be done, right? … But are there really? If I don’t do it, then nobody will? … Really? We often occupy ourselves with responsibilities that do not actually have to belong to us. Sometimes we should be kinder to ourselves. Sometimes, forgiving ourselves can even be beneficial to our health and can make us more productive. We just need the right amount of it.

Some of the benefits of self-compassion

Here are just some benefits of being kind to yourself. A big meta-analytical study from 2012 found that higher self-compassion is a protective factor leading to better mental health. Another way to relate to oneself is self-esteem, but in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion involves less self-evaluation, ego-defensiveness and self-enhancement, and its effect is stronger. It also reduces anxiety and enhances psychological well-being. It helps us recover from previous failures and enhances our performance. Another recent meta-analysis found that self-compassion-based intervention has an effect on 11 different psychological conditions including eating behavior, stress, depression, self-criticism and anxiety.

Okay, you might think, it might be good for my mental health, but it won't help me achieve my goals or fulfill my responsibilities. As a matter of fact, self-compassion can help you be more productive. If your responsibilities are important to you, then distinguishing between real responsibilities and those only perceived (but without any real effect on anything) might show you where your precious energy would find a better use. This realization can be beneficial to your mental health and help you fulfill your responsibilities more efficiently.

"Being nice to oneself means caring about nothing but oneself"… and other misconceptions about self-compassion

Don’t get it wrong. To be kind to yourself doesn’t mean you have to be less kind to other people. There isn’t a limited chunk of kindness that we can distribute. On the contrary, if we are kind to ourselves, our psychological well-being enhances, and we can be easier on others as well. But we also shouldn’t be oversensitive to everything that happens to us. It is all about balance.

Self-compassion shouldn’t be mistaken for self-pity. The difference between self-pity and self-compassion is that self-pity can make a person more passive. Self-compassion is a way to recover from hard times (and honestly, anyone who is trying to achieve something does experience those sometimes), and it can make you more resilient against many stressors.

Neither does it mean that you should generally try less. On the contrary. As I have mentioned, to know when to let go means to save more mental strength for the important things. Sometimes things don’t work out for us even if we do our best. Everyone loses sometimes and sometimes our losses come in series, which can be particularly demotivating. Being angry at oneself or at other people doesn’t actually help, just as finding the guilty ones doesn’t. But letting go does. Just to say “Hey”, call our buddies, or have a good long sleep can get us back on track for Monday morning, doing our best again.

How can I be kind to myself?

Okay, but how to be kind to yourself? Does it involve ice cream and wellness? Well, to be honest, it might. Treating yourself can be a manifestation of self-compassion. But here are some further tips:

Treat yourself as you would treat your friend

When you are hard on yourself, try to think “Would I be so hard on my friend if they did the same thing?” Almost certainly you wouldn’t. Sometimes we can behave towards ourselves like a bad coach yelling “This is not good enough!”. If you are applying the coach approach, then try to be a good coach. A good coach tries to encourage instead of telling off. Try to treat yourself just as you would treat your friend. Why wouldn’t you?

Write a letter to yourself

One way of treating yourself as a friend is to write a letter to yourself. This might also help you organize your thoughts. Try to tell your you-friend how you feel and why you do the things you do. Show them that you’re doing what you can. And when reading your own letter, try to have some understanding for its author.

Give yourself encouragement

Your friend would also acknowledge your hard times or a difficult situation and try to encourage you. Then try to encourage yourself. What would you say to your friend in such a situation? It might feel a little weird at the start, but keep trying, it will get easier. Finally, you will see where it gets you. Appreciate yourself and your efforts.

Learn acceptance and gratefulness

Everyone is different, and that is good. Try to find out who you are and accept yourself for just that. Find out what your uniqueness lies in and appreciate it. You might also try to make a list of things or people you are grateful for.

And remember, you are not alone in your imperfection.

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