Self-compassion, pioneered by Dr. Kristin Neff, is the concept of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Dr. Neff, an Associate Professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, operationally defined the construct of self-compassion by developing the Self-Compassion Scale. She, and others, have since used it in their research to measure the effects of self-compassion.

Self-compassion is no different than having compassion for others. Think about someone you care deeply about, and think about how you feel and react when you notice they’re suffering. Warmth, caring, a desire to help, as well as an extension of understanding and kindness are common themes when we’re feeling compassion for others.

Think about how you’d treat and talk to a friend who was suffering or felt that they had failed at something. Now think about how you talk to yourself when you’re having a difficult time or notice something you don’t like about yourself. I bet you can spot a difference! We are often so much harsher with ourselves than we are with those we love. Instead of the warmth, caring, and understanding we extend to others, we are often quick to criticize and judge ourselves for shortcomings, blame ourselves for our suffering, and beat ourselves up when we make a mistake.

Research over the last decade has shown that increased levels of self-compassion in individuals lead to reduced stress, enhanced feelings of wellbeing, safety, and security, improved levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and motivation, reduced levels of anxiety and depression, improved resilience, and so much more.

Dr. Neff defined 3 elements of self-compassion:

 -Self-kindness vs. self-judgment. This means being gentle with ourselves when we experience painful circumstances, fail, feel inadequate, etc. It means we are warm and understanding toward ourselves rather than self-critical.

-Common humanity vs. isolation. This is the recognition that suffering and feelings of inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. We are not alone in our suffering.

-Mindfulness vs. over-identification. This concept is centered around balance. It means recognizing our thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental (mindful) way without attempting to suppress them, while also not getting caught up and “swept away” in negative reactivity.

There are a number of exercises and practices that Dr. Neff recommends in her books and trainings to harness the power of self-compassion. Quite frequently in my clinical practice, I educate clients on the concepts and benefits associated with self-compassion and encourage self-compassion practices.

 As a mom myself, as well as a business owner focused on parents and kids, I have thought a lot about what self-compassion looks like specifically for parents in our unique set of circumstances.

 Let’s face it, being a parent is HARD. While it can be joyful and fulfilling, it can also be physically and emotionally taxing. However, resisting the pain and struggle, as we’re often tempted to do, will only serve to make us feel worse. Self-compassion, on the other hand, can be instrumental in improving our own wellbeing by mindfully noticing our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and caring for ourselves accordingly with kindness, acceptance, warmth, and understanding.

 So, what does this actually look like? Here are a few examples of ways parents can incorporate mindful self-compassion into their daily lives:

 -Acknowledge that it’s hard. Yes, we love our kids unconditionally, we know how fortunate we are to have them, and can’t imagine our lives without them (well, maybe we can…sometimes…). Anyway, self-compassion means noticing our negative experiences and emotions (burnout, anyone?), recognizing the immense mental load of parenting, and riding the wave of the struggles as they arise. I think you’ll be delighted by the difference you notice in the way you feel when you compassionately acknowledge the difficulty you’re experiencing rather than fighting it, denying it, blaming yourself for it, and criticizing yourself for your shortcomings.

 So, what does this look like? Say, your kids are fighting in the back seat of the car and are on your last nerve. It’s been a long day and you’re just DONE. You’re tempted to yell at them to just STOP, or maybe you even do yell at them. Most of us would immediately jump to wondering why our kids can’t get along, beating ourselves up for our perceived failures in how we’ve parented them or lost our patience with them, lamenting how annoying they really are, heck, maybe even wondering why we thought it was a good idea to have kids and never be able to enjoy a quiet, peaceful experience ever again. Self-compassionately acknowledging the difficulty of being a parent means saying to yourself, “hey, I’m feeling really anxious and frustrated right now. This is hard. The kids are loud and it’s hard to listen to them right now. Being a parent is really exhausting and incessant. I’m here for you.” (Yes, we can be there for ourselves just like we can be there for someone we love!)

 -Realize that it’s hard for others, too. Social media hasn’t been great for parents when it comes to comparison. People are very good at making it look like they have it all together: their house is clean, their kids are getting along, they’re feeding them healthy meals and engaging in educational activities, they’re present and thoughtful with their partners, and their social lives are booming! The reality is that ALL parents struggle. All PEOPLE struggle. We are not alone in our challenges and our suffering. No matter what their Instagram grid looks like, no one’s life is perfect and no one is exempt from suffering. Recognizing this shared humanity rather than wondering why YOU suffer and struggle so much more than others, can be transformative.

Please note, I relay this concept while acknowledging that many of us experience great privilege. Whether this is financial, related to availability of social support, having healthy kids, and myriad other life circumstances, I would be remiss to not acknowledge that some people DO truly have it harder than others. However, being self-compassionate means acknowledging your own struggle, noticing that you may have been dealt a difficult set of circumstances, but also realizing that you are not alone in your suffering (in whatever form this takes: humanness means suffering) and being kind and compassionate to yourself through it all.

 -Care for yourself. Ask yourself, what do I need right now? And follow through! Give yourself three minutes of quiet, even if it means locking yourself in a closet for some deep breathing (just make sure your kids are somewhere safe, first). Use any support available to you to get out of the house for a break if you can. Eat the things you like that make you feel good. Prioritize sleep the best that you can. Journal if you have time and feel like it helps. Whatever fills your cup, make time for it when you can. And when you can’t get a break, don’t have support, and feel like you’re on the brink: take a few deep breaths (exhale longer than your inhale), acknowledge the pain of what you’re going through, and speak to yourself with compassion, kindness, and acceptance.

-Set Boundaries. Notice when you’ve simply had enough, and set the boundaries you can realistically set in order to care for yourself. Whether this means declining an invitation to play with your child (it’s ok, really!), declining a social invitation that just feels like too much, or accepting a social invitation you want to accept even if it means missing out on a bedtime with your kids. Self-compassion is not only treating ourselves kindly within our thoughts, but also with our actions, and boundaries can be a wonderful tool for self-care.

 Of course, this only scratches the surface, and let’s face it, these suggestions may not resonate with you due to your individual circumstances. Whether you’re looking for more, or just some different ideas, Dr. Neff’s books are wonderful for learning even more techniques for bringing self-compassion into your life and make for wonderful, reflective reading. If this has been helpful to you, please share and leave a comment letting me know if you’d like me to expand on any of these, or other, topics!

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