Increase Your Self-Compassion: Five Guiding Principles for Healing

Self-compassion is a higher-order aspect of self-care. If all of the components of self-care were put into pyramid form, self-compassion would be at the top. It requires a level of self-love and kindness that can only come when you care enough to treat yourself well.

Why is self-compassion so important? If you have a lack of compassion for yourself, you’re more likely to castigate yourself with a ruthless internal voice for your own honest mistakes and errors. You may go so far as blaming yourself and being angry with yourself for having normal feelings and issues, or you could even end up feeling worthless and empty to the point of considering suicide.

No matter how you slice it, judging, blaming, disliking, insulting, and wanting to kill yourself are all the opposites of self-care. Chances are you wouldn’t treat anyone else this way, so why do you treat yourself this way? All of these are self-destructive and will exhaust your energy reserves and take you nowhere but down.

Remember that compassion, along with empathy, is one of the highest forms of human emotion. It’s healing, soothing, and unifying. It pulls people together and holds them in a positive and compelling way. The compassion you have for others is a part of the positive effect you have on the people and the world around you. It’s time that you yourself receive some of the benefits of that. Here are five guiding principles to help you in your quest to increase your self-compassion.

Self-Compassion Principle 1. The Golden Rule in reverse.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule for the emotionally neglected is the same rule, but in reverse. “Do unto yourself as you would do unto others.” In other words, don’t let your critical voice say anything to you that you wouldn’t say to someone you care about. Don’t punish yourself in a way that you wouldn’t punish someone you care about. If you wouldn’t punish a friend for doing something, don’t punish yourself for it either. Do you think that if your friend ran over a curb while parallel parking, you would say to her, “You idiot, what a lousy driver. You’re an embarrassment”? No, you would not. You should therefore not speak to yourself that way. If you find yourself unable to silence your harsh Critical Voice, I highly recommend the book Self-Esteem by McKay & Fanning.

Self-Compassion Principle 2. Become aware of damaging self-directed anger.

Anger at yourself is the opposite of compassion. Start trying to notice how often and how intensely you feel angry with yourself. This is important because there is a point at which self-directed anger becomes unhelpful. It starts to make you dislike yourself as a person and that’s self-destructive. If you make a mistake, there’s only one thing you can do and that’s learn from it. Anything else is wasted energy. Any time you feel angry with yourself, consider it a cue to turn the compassion you have for others upon yourself.

Self-Compassion Principle 3. Give yourself the benefit of your own wisdom and compassion.

As an emotionally neglected person, you’re probably a great listener. Your friends talk to you because you give them helpful advice. You’re nonjudgmental, caring, and compassionate to others. That’s a breeze for you. Your job now is becoming able to use your own voice of nonjudgmental wisdom to help yourself the same way that you use it to help others. That means being able to speak your wisdom to yourself and being able to listen and take in your own voice. Why should others get the benefit of your help and caring, but not you?

Self-Compassion Principle 4. Develop an inner loving-but-firm voice.

As an emotionally neglected person, you didn’t get the advantage of internalizing a loving-but-firm voice from your parents. While other kids’ parents were saying, “It’s OK, let’s figure out what to do so that you’ll do better next time,” you were scrambling for yourself. You were, in the absence of helpful parental input, saying to yourself either the too harsh “You idiot” or the letting-yourself-off-the-hook, “I’m not going to think about this.” With the former, you’re feeding self-anger and draining off your energy; with the latter, you’re setting yourself up to make the same mistake again. Either way, you lose.

A helpful, positive, loving-but-firm voice will seem like a dialogue, in that you are questioning yourself, making yourself think, in a nonjudgmental way, about what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again in the future. Here’s an example of what your voice might say to you if you forgot to fill up the car and ran out of gas on the freeway on the way home from work.

“How did this happen? You were going to stop and fill up after running errands at lunch today!”

“Well, let’s see, why didn’t I stop and fill up after lunch today?”

“Oh, yes, I was running late. I barely made it back for my one o’clock meeting because there was such a huge line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

“Those were really circumstances out of my control. How can I make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

“Never plan gas fill-up for lunch time. There’s not enough flexibility in that one hour to make sure it will be done.”

“From now on I’ll make sure I gas up either during the morning drive to work or on my way home so I won’t be set up to forget again.”

Notice how this loving-but-firm voice isn’t too easy on you but neither is it self-destructively tough. The voice takes four key steps. It:

  1. holds you accountable for your mistake without jumping to judgment or blame
  2. helps you think through which part of the mistake is your fault and what part is due to other people or circumstances
  3. determines what to do differently to prevent this error from happening again in the future
  4. helps you realize that you’ve learned something important from this mistake and lets you put it behind you.

These steps are all productive and useful. They’re the means to an end. They will help make your life better without doing damage to your self-esteem or your self-confidence. All of life is about learning, growing and becoming better. These three steps will do all of those things for you. Keep working on creating that loving-but-firm parental voice.

Self-Compassion Principle 5. Allow yourself to be human.

Like having feelings, making mistakes is an essential part of being human. Both are non-negotiable conditions of humanity. Please know that there’s not a human being on earth who hasn’t had many, many feelings and made many, many mistakes. If you meet people who say otherwise, don’t listen to them; they’re full of nonsense (to put it kindly).

No doubt working on all of these skills must seem a bit daunting. Having lived a childhood devoid of some of the most important components of emotional health and self-care leaves you with no choice but to re-parent yourself in your adulthood.

My solemn promise to you is that if you do this work of building yourself up, brick-by-brick, skill-by-skill, step-by-step, you’ll reap the tremendous rewards. As you build up the pyramid of self-love, you’ll be climbing it, too, until you reach the top and find that you have a level of kindness and calmness within yourself and for yourself that you never knew existed. And when you turn your powerful compassion upon yourself, you’ll be living with a new You. A You that’s loveable, fallible, imperfect, with strengths and weaknesses, wins and losses, sensitivity and resilience. A full and connected You.

Find out about upcoming programs with Jonice Webb at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, © 2012, by Jonice Webb, PhD, with Christine Musello, PsyD.