So how can we learn self-compassion? In 2010, Dr. Neff and her colleague Chris Germer, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, developed an eight-week mindful self-compassion program that has since been taught to thousands of people. In 2012, the Journal of Clinical Psychology published the results of small clinical trial (27 people) in which half the participants took part in the self-compassion course while the control group remained on a wait-list. The course takers reported significantly larger gains in self-compassion, mindfulness and well-being compared to the wait-list group, and the benefits were lasting, still there one year after the class ended.
In an effort to reach more people, the authors distilled the eight-week course into the “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook,” published by Guilford Press last summer. The workbook offers numerous writing exercises, guided meditations and informal practices to teach self compassion.
Dr. Neff notes that self-compassion does not come naturally to most of us and requires practice. To learn self-compassion, we must first mindfully acknowledge our pain in a nonjudgmental way. Then we need to remind ourselves that we are not alone, that imperfection is part of a shared human experience. Finally, we need to offer ourselves kindness and support, similar to how we would treat a close friend.
Here are some exercises to help you improve your self-compassion skills. These exercises have been summarized for brevity here, but you can find more complete descriptions in the workbook or on Dr. Neff’s website.
Take the self-compassion test
Use this short test developed by Dr. Neff to gain a snapshot of your own level of self-compassion. If you score low, commit to learning some self-compassion practices. If you score high in self-compassion, continue to practice self-compassion to build on what you already have.
How do I treat a friend?
Close your eyes and think about a time when a close friend came to you because he or she was struggling with a misfortune, failure or feelings of inadequacy. Now write down what you said. What tone did you use? Did your interaction include any nonverbal gestures — touching, hugs or other actions? Now think about a similar situation in which you were struggling. What did you say to yourself? Write it down. Now compare the two answers. Were you as kind to yourself as you were to your friend?
Keep a self-compassion journal
Each evening think about an area where you are struggling and focus on mindfulness, common humanity and self kindness. First mindfully acknowledge your pain. Write down the difficult feelings you have. (I’m worried about a mistake I made at work. I just can’t seem to get my act together at home.)