The science of self-compassion

Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK
13 February 2020

Do you ever think about how kind you are to yourself? Are you self-compassionate during harder times and see self-kindness as an important act? Or do you see self-care as selfish? Perhaps you haven’t even thought about it. 

Here, I explore why having self-compassion and inward kindness can do wonders for your mental health. I’ll also explain how to connect to your inner voice and ways to show yourself a little love.

Self-compassion and your mental health

After a long bath, some fresh air or an hour alone with a good book, you may be aware that you feel better for it. In fact, there have been numerous studies into why being self-compassionate is good for your mental health.

Bupa’s Behavioural Insights Adviser, Lauren Gordon, explains: “Compassion is the ability to show empathy, kindness and concern to others, especially during difficult times. Self-compassion is when you bring it back toward yourself – the same as you would to others – perhaps when things go wrong or you feel you’ve failed. When you’re self-compassionate, it engages similar regions in your brain that expressing compassion towards others does.

“Studies have found that people who are self-compassionate are less likely to be critical of themselves and therefore less likely to feel anxious or depressed. Because being self-compassionate creates a sense of self-worth, you care about your wellbeing and are more likely to ‘bounce back’ after a setback or knock. It can also help to reduce stress and, in turn, bring you greater happiness, optimism and life satisfaction.

“Research suggests that self-compassion enhances wellbeing because it helps you to feel cared for, connected and emotionally calm. It can deactivate your ‘threat’ system and activate your ‘self-soothing’ system, which is associated with feelings of security and safeness. This is thought to help you cope better during stressful situations.”

Your inner voice

Being self-compassionate isn’t always easy to do. You may view it as self-indulgent or selfish. But try to see being kind to yourself as a positive thing. It all starts with your inner voice.

  • Listen to your inner voice and make time to notice how you feel and the way you speak to yourself. In our busy lives, it’s easy to be more concerned with what’s going on around you or with others, rather than tuning in to how you’re really feeling.
  • If your inner voice is critical or doubting, you’re less likely to pick yourself up and carry on. Having a gentle and encouraging inner voice can make you feel much better about things and help you deal with them better.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes and fail. It’s normal to feel upset after a mistake, but it’s important that you don’t let those feelings take over and linger. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll be kind rather than judgmental. Remind yourself that no one is perfect, and everyone has times when things don’t turn out how they planned.
  • See mistakes or failures as important. Having an inner voice that is self-compassionate during these times will allow you to grow, learn and adapt.
  • The things you’ll often be most critical of are your habits and behaviours. Learn how to stay motivated to achieve your goals. Recognising that failure is often part of reaching a goal is a good way to avoid being overly critical and more self-compassionate.

Show yourself some love

During harder times, or maybe just after a difficult day, make a point of doing something to show yourself kindness and compassion. It doesn’t have to be much. Simply think of the things that make you feel better and make the effort to carry one or two of them out. In the video below, we asked members of the public what they do to show themselves a little love.

Need some ideas? Below are several things that may help you connect inwardly and ultimately make you feel that little bit better.

  • Exercise! Any form will do, as long as you enjoy it. Head out for a run along your favourite route, or mix it up by taking a different path to discover new places and sights. Try an exercise class with a fun twist – think street dance, aerial acrobats or trampolines. Or simply go for a brisk walk to help clear your mind and connect with yourself. You may want to exercise alone or invite a friend to join you.
  • Do a yoga class. Many people find that yoga is a great way to exercise and build strength, but also unwind and think inwardly. The slower, calmer pace of yoga gives you the space and time to focus on both your mind and body.
  • Meditate. Being mindful and meditating gives you the head space to think clearly about how you feel in that moment in time. Lots of people use meditation to show inward compassion and kindness. You don’t have to be seated and still with your eyes closed to do it (although that’s preferred by many). Why not head out into the fresh air and try one of our walking meditation podcasts.
  • Get lost in a good book. Reading is a great way to unwind and leave the daily stresses of life behind. Team it with a warm bath or a mug of your favourite tea and give yourself that much-needed physical and mental rest.
  • Bake! Baking or cooking gives you chance to be mindful and creative. It’s also an expression of self-love by making yourself a sweet treat or nourishing meal. Make a point of cooking healthy dishes or bakes and savouring every mouthful.
  • Write yourself a letter. This can be a great way to reflect on your feelings. Even better, write the letter to yourself as though it was from a close friend. This can give you a greater sense of perspective and it’s easier to show kindness to yourself this way.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Alice Windsor
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK

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