Why self-compassion is essential for wellbeing

Many of us find it easy to be supportive and understanding towards others, but research shows it’s how kindly we treat ourselves that determines how well we maintain our health and wellbeing.

“Self-compassion is forgiving yourself for things you’ve done wrong but also recognising that it’s only human to make mistakes, and that it’s OK to have frailties and imperfections,” says Professor Tracey Wade, Dean of Psychology at South Australia’s Flinders University.

It seems people who practice self-compassion tend to have higher levels of personal wellbeing, optimism and happiness, as well as a reduced risk of anxiety and depression. It may also positively influence eating habits, help them achieve more and reach their goals sooner.

Self-compassion is often mistaken for self-esteem, but the two couldn’t be more different. Self-esteem is about confidence and a high regard for our abilities, whereas self-compassion is about feeling empathy and kindness to ourselves and our behaviours. Although people with high self-esteem believe they're more successful, one study has suggested that it does not make them a more effective leader, more attractive and compelling in an interview, or more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle.

In fact, research suggests a strong relationship between self-compassion, health behaviours and reactions to illness. They found that participants who had high levels of self-compassion were more likely to take a proactive approach to their health—engaging in healthy behaviours and seeking medical attention sooner than those who had lower levels of self-compassion.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. and associate director for the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University Business School, says that this is because people who experience self-compassion are more likely to see their weaknesses as changeable. Self-compassion—far from taking them off the hook—actually increases their motivation to improve and avoid the same mistakes, which may lead to increased performance in the future.

Consider these tips to help practice self-compassion:

· Watch your language. You may be so used to being self-critical that you don’t even realise how harsh your language is. If you wouldn’t consider saying it to people you care about, then don’t say it to yourself.

· Write a letter of support to yourself, listing your best and worst traits to remind yourself that nobody is perfect.

· Think about what steps you might take to help you feel better about yourself—this may be a set of compassionate phrases to say when you’re being self-critical or a physical gesture such as holding your hand over your heart.

Do you find it challenging to practice self-compassion? How do you stay kind to yourself?

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