The Need for Self-Compassion in Challenging Times

Self-Compassion and Behavioral Health

As we scroll through social media, listen to the news, and read countless articles about what we SHOULD be doing during this time in order to stay well and productive, we are ingesting multiple messages — both implicit and explicit — for how life is SUPPOSED TO look. Unfortunately, this sets us up for a bit of a challenge. When expectations are set high and real life is not meeting those expectations (in some cases not even coming close), we are likely to feel like we’re failing. When this happens, we tend to disregard any small successes we’re able to achieve, instead seeing the world in black and white: that we are either successful or we’ve failed.

This, of course, is not realistic. Cognitive psychologists call this unhelpful thinking style dichotomous; that is, we think in an “all or nothing” pattern. Real life, however, does not fall neatly into one of those two categories and there are many shades of gray. Real life brings us many successes and many challenges daily, especially as we’re all navigating the additional stressors brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the late, great Albert Ellis, Ph.D.,

“There are three MUSTS that hold us back: I MUST do well. You MUST treat me well. And the world MUST be easy.”

Well, if your experience sheltering at home, trying to keep up with a full-time job, serving as a substitute teacher, and attempting to maintain your sanity at the same time is not perfectly successful, then the only reality you MUST accept is…that your experience is NORMAL!

As we witness kindness and compassion coming from all corners of the globe and do our best to show the same to those around us, it is essential that we make practicing self-compassion as great a priority. Self-compassion is simply compassion directed inward. According to the work of various Buddhist teachers, self-compassion in action consists of three main elements:

  • kindness,
  • a sense of common humanity,
  • and mindfulness.

These elements interact to establish a self-compassionate frame of mind. Self-compassion is important when considering personal mistakes or shortcomings and even more so when faced with extremely difficult, painful, or traumatic life situations that are beyond our control…like a pandemic.

When we practice self-compassion, we don’t necessarily push away negative emotions; in fact, quite the opposite. We embrace them, viewing them as a normal reaction to a really difficult situation and deciding not to judge ourselves for having them. Interestingly, when we practice self-compassion we actually decrease cortisol, or stress hormone, deactivating our threat system (fight, flight, or freeze), and instead activate our caregiving system, which is associated with feelings of safety. In a 2013 study, individuals who underwent mindful self-compassion training demonstrated a significant increase in self-compassion, mindfulness, compassion for others, and life satisfaction and a decrease in depression, anxiety, stress, and emotional avoidance. Participants who continued the practice of self-compassion demonstrated long-term enhancement of quality of life over time. (Self-Compassion in Clinical Practice)

So, as we are experiencing additional stressors related to all that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, how can you improve upon your own capacity for self-compassion?  You can start by measuring our own level of self-compassion with the Self Compassion Scale, developed by Dr. Kristen Neff. You might also consider self-compassion-building activities, like writing a letter to yourself from the point of view of a compassionate friend, or practicing adjusting self-criticism to be more reflective of a critique you might give to a good friend. Of course, attending to self-care is important as well, as you must take care of the ship if the ship has any chance of successfully carrying others through the storm. When you experience suffering, try to simply notice that the suffering is present and give yourself the permission to feel whatever you are feeling at that moment. The act of recognizing the emotion can, in and of itself, result in some relief. Finally, respond to yourself with kindness, which includes nonjudgment of the emotions and, perhaps, attending to your own happiness and self-care.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a myriad of distressing experiences and major adjustments in our personal and work life routines. We are certainly deserving of the gift of self-compassion as we navigate these uncharted waters.


Further resources:

GoodTherapy on Self-Compassion
Five Ways to Put Self-Compassion into Therapy