How to Exercise Self-Compassion: The Key is Empathy and Vulnerability
“I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” —Brené Brown
We’ve all heard the advice, “love yourself” and “be kind to yourself” more times than we can count, right?
I don’t know about you, but when I started down the road of personal development years ago, I doubted this sage advice. Mostly because I didn’t even understand what it meant.
I tried affirmations like “I love myself,” or “I am worthy,” and hoped they would work. And they did, kind of.
I could love myself, but only when I was doing, being, and living up to my (very high) expectations of myself. What this manifested was virtually the opposite of this great advice: I started to love myself only when I would achieve ___ (fill in the blank). It was completely conditional, and this began to spill over into my relationships with others as well.
To be honest, I almost gave up entirely on the whole self-love thing until I started Life Coaching school, and suddenly was faced with a lot of hard questions about my sense of self and self-worth. I realized I needed to revisit the whole “love yourself” thing. I found an amazing coach who, among other coaching methods, follows the Brené Brown Daring Way program.
I had read Brené Brown’s work in the past and honestly, it was a struggle for me. The concepts were so foreign to me that I glossed over the advice and didn’t really get much out of it. Fast forward to my coaching session and my coach asks me, “What is shame? What does worthiness mean to you? What does self-love look like to you?” And immediately I am in a tailspin of confusion and uncertainty.
If you are anything like me, you have spent a lifetime avoiding these terms because they scared you, (or am I the only one?) and unpacking them was some of the hardest and most rewarding work I have done on this personal development journey. It took guts.
I am happy to report that I was gutsy and took the plunge and I have come out the other side of all of this with a good understanding of what self-compassion looks like, and I want to share with you so you too can be gutsy and love yourself.
I am a researcher at heart so let’s first start with some definitions. These are Brené Brown’s definitions combined with my own interpretations based on my experiences unpacking these terms.
Empathy: Taking the other’s perspective. Understanding and identifying the emotion, communicating that understanding and feeling it; not pushing it away, and then moving through it. As well as not placing value on the emotion.
Vulnerability: Uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure (Brené Brown). We are hard wired for connection, and the fear of disconnection is vulnerability.
Unconditional Love: To love and be loved because of our imperfections and vulnerabilities, not in spite of them. Believing you are worthy and enough.
How to exercise self-compassion in 4 steps:
1. Practice Self-Kindness:
Practicing self-kindness requires empathy and unconditional love for yourself.
What does this look like? Speaking to yourself the way you would to someone you love, or to a small child. For example, would you say “You are such an idiot! Why did you do that?” to a child? Or would you say, “Hey, it’s okay, you made a mistake.”
Self-kindness also looks like empathizing with yourself when you are feeling less than worthy about a situation, emotion, or circumstance you are experiencing.
Do not place value on the emotion you are feeling. Just feel it, label it, communicate that you know what it is you are feeling, and then move through it.
Self-kindness also looks like taking a step back and remembering that you love yourself unconditionally; even when you make a mistake, or screw up, or say something you wish you hadn’t, or don’t do or say something you wish you had. Remember that unconditional love is the understanding that you are worthy because of your imperfections.
2. Embrace Common Humanity:
Common Humanity is the idea that our struggles are part of the human condition. We all struggle, we all screw up, we all suffer, feel pain, loss, guilt, shame, joy etc. No matter how alone you feel in your emotions, others have felt it too. You are not alone.
We are hard wired for connection. We need connection to thrive. When we understand that others feel the same way, we are able to connect rather than push away.
Common Humanity also requires practicing empathy, this time for others as well as yourself. Remember not to place value on an emotion or an experience, but try to take the other’s perspective. Understand and identify the emotion, communicate that you understand the emotion and have felt it too. Don’t take on the emotion for another but allow them to be heard.
This also requires vulnerability. Vulnerability is connection. It is opening up to others. It is setting down the armor of numbing and hiding; the armor that keeps us from being seen. Putting down the armor and being vulnerable does not mean showing weakness or over-sharing, it means trusting others with your story. It means building trust to create connection.
Embracing the idea of common humanity means connecting and being vulnerable with others, allowing yourself to open up to them and them to you, all while practicing empathy. In doing this you enable connection, and an understanding that we are all in this together.
3. Practice Mindfulness:
Mindfulness is the act of embracing and feeling your emotions. To be mindful you must lean into and experience your emotions. You must stop pushing the emotions away because they are uncomfortable. You need to allow yourself to identify and feel the emotions you are experiencing and then move through those emotions. Do not let yourself be overcome by the emotions, let them move through you.
Practicing mindfulness also requires vulnerability. Vulnerability is emotional risk. It is setting down the armor of numbing and avoiding negative emotions, and instead choosing to acknowledge them. Mindfulness and self-empathy go hand in hand.
4. Practice Non-Judgment:
Staying out of judgment means not placing value on your emotions, but rather embracing them and then moving through them.
This is the culmination of the other three steps. Practicing non-judgment means empathizing with your own emotions, as well as those of others, being vulnerable, and loving yourself and others unconditionally.
Conclusion: Self-Compassion is a Practice
To be compassionate with yourself is a practice. It is not an end result. It is not a one-time thing.
Self-compassion is a continual practice of not placing value on the emotions you experience, but letting them be, feeling them, and letting them go. It is remembering that we all feel emotions, and we all experience vulnerability with those emotions. They are part of the human experience.
To exercise self-compassion is to connect with ourselves and others with empathy and love. To do this we must practice opening up, taking off the armor, and letting ourselves be seen and loved for our imperfections, not in spite of them.
This takes guts.
This is the greatest struggle for me. I have been hustling for worthiness for so long that stopping to ask “Who am I? What do I feel? How can I honor those feelings?” is completely foreign to me. Scary even! But the work is invaluable.
I work at this everyday, but I am now able more often than not, to pause when I am starting to have a negative thought about myself and what I feel I should be doing and instead feel compassion and empathy for the part of myself that wants to do it all and be everything to everybody. I then can ask myself, what would be the compassionate response right now? The answer: be gutsy, love yourself.
Remember, self-compassion is a practice which means it is work, hard work. Being compassionate takes guts. But you can do it.
If you would like more resources about self-compassion and self-improvement check out my full Gutsy Life Resource Library.
Be Gutsy, I believe in you!