• Deborah Vail

3 Steps to Mindful Self-Compassion

Updated: Jan 29


Mindful self-compassion talk seems to be everywhere these days, peddled as a potent antidote to the critical inner voice many of us live with. The idea is that if we learn how to be more mindful of our internal experience, and make the effort to replace hypercritical mental chatter with a more kind and understanding tone, then we can transform our default reactions to life’s struggles into a more self-compassionate pattern.


Two leaders in the field of mindful self compassion research and education are Kristen Neff, PhD and Christopher Germer, PhD, who together run the Center for Mindful Self Compassion in San Diego, California. Their research has shown the 3 basic steps that lead to improved self-compassion: Mindfulness, Common Humanity, and Loving-Kindness.


1. Mindfulness is achieved by simply becoming aware of our suffering - perhaps naming it.

"I suffer."


2. Common Humanity is identified by simply noting how other people may suffer similarly.

"We suffer."


3. And finally Loving-Kindness is achieved by extending the sort of loving and kind words toward our suffering we might give to someone else who suffers.

"And I offer myself loving-kindness."


My own life provides some vivid object-lessons for folks, so here's how self-compassion could apply in a real world example. Recently, I experienced a public embarrassment when I dropped a ball on a team project, and the realization I failed at my assigned task prompted a flood of shame. Immediately, my brain started trolling me with unhelpful thoughts about my incompetence, how everyone who witnessed my mistake must absolutely despise me for it, and how surely they would whisper together in agreement never to invite me into a group project again. This line of thinking triggered stress hormones to flow into my body, causing my heart to race, my face to burn red with shame, and my body to generally prepare itself to react like a cornered animal.


In this situation, self compassion might have sounded like: "I am feeling ashamed right now. Most of these witnesses have made a similar inconsequential mistake, and I am not alone. It’s okay to be human, and my body could use a gentle walking break and warm sunshine for kind relief from the stress hormones." I wish I could say I offered myself self-compassion this way after my simple mistake, but instead I sent out a flurry of "damage control" emails which actually drew attention to such a minor mistake that nobody would have noticed otherwise! Indeed, it turned out this assigned task I missed was absolutely inconsequential to the project. I did eventually recover a sense of calm a short time later, but I wish I had engaged in some mindful self-compassion sooner, as I surely would have recognized my actions were an over reaction fueled by unhelpful and untrue thoughts!


The truth is, we all have the power to foster a faster and more reliable self-compassion response by simply practicing mindful self-compassion consistently. To that end, I'm going to add a brief guided self-compassion meditation to my YouTube channel soon. Stay tuned for another blog post when I get posted. If you wish to learn more about mindful self-compassion, I highly recommend reading "The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions" by Christopher Germer, PhD.

A few days later, another stress hormone storm erupted in my body when someone sent me a terse email, mistakenly accusing me of doing something that I hadn’t done, and calling me names. But this time, with some mindful self-compassion recently practiced, I was ready to meet the challenge of hypercritical internal dialogue, and I compassionately discharged those big waves of cortisol lava coursing through my body by practicing mindful self-compassion. “These names hurt. I am not alone in my hurting right now. I am worthy of humane treatment and a cup of hot tea will help my body feel cared for right now.” After that, I realized they were simply mistaken and having their own unhelpful reaction to stress, and I replied to the person with heaps of mindful and humane care that is much more aligned with who I desire to consistently be.

This mindfulness stuff really works, and with consistent effort, you have the power to re-wire your brain to be more self-compassionate! I wish you great success in making your brain a more kind and compassionate place to live!

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