Self-compassion is only as useful as it is do-able, and these self-compassion exercises will help you make it as do-able as possible. Self-compassion is one of those things that sounds good in theory but gets a little muddied with practice.
It is one thing to admit that you are not the most compassionate toward yourself, it is another thing to begin responding compassionately in difficult situations. Humans are creatures of habit. We find something that works well enough to get by, and then do that thing forever.
Self-criticism might be enough to get us through some rocky childhood moments and early adulthood, but eventually, the wear and tear of it can become destructive. Using self-criticism in response to disappointment and failure is like using acid to clean a cut. It might get rid of the bacteria, but it also destroys healthy skin and tissue.
A lot of people think of self-compassion like it is the same as doing nothing, like leaving that cut unattended and open so that it just gets worse. However, self-compassion is like putting anti-bacterial ointment and a bandage on a cut. Instead of destroying everything around the cut, it targets the pain in a way that allows it to heal.
These self-compassion exercises are designed to help you build your ability to respond to failure and disappointment compassionately, rather than critically. Using them will help you create a self-compassion first-aid kit to use whenever you find yourself in a difficult situation.
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10 Effective Self-Compassion Exercises
What is Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is the ability to notice pain in yourself and respond in a way that alleviates that pain. Where self-criticism generally seeks to absolve pain by convincing yourself that you are some kind of terrible (i.e. “I’m stupid,” “I’m a failure,” “I never get anything right,” etc.), self-compassion seeks to absolve pain by normalizing it and making space for yourself to move forward.
If you would like to read an in-depth overview of self-compassion for better understanding, check out this article: What is Self-Compassion? 3 Basic Steps to Help
However, to summarize, self-compassion is a method of understanding and motivating that does not involve the continuous self-destruction of self-criticism. Self-compassion is not letting yourself off easy–you still hold yourself accountable for the things you do wrong. You just do not call yourself pathetic or worthless while you do it.
A self-compassionate response actually allows you to be more accountable because it does not cause even more suffering while you do it. Instead of saying, “I made a mistake because I’m a failure of a human being,” self-compassion would guide you to say, “I made a mistake because I am not God and still have room to grow.”
Or some version of that–your version might be simpler and shorter, or more complicated and individual. The point is that a compassionate response allows you to be a human who is still growing. If you are still growing, then of course you will make mistakes, but you will also still grow.
If that sounds a little hoaky or foreign to you, you probably grew up in a pretty standard society/culture where perfection was highly prized and mistakes were poorly tolerated. Welcome to the 21st century.
Just because self-criticism has been trained into most of us since birth does not mean we cannot start today to treat ourselves a little more kindly. Try the self-compassion exercises below to find some new ways to bring more self-compassion into your life.
10 Exercises for Increased Self-Compassion
Self-Compassion Exercises #1: Take this Quiz
Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion quiz is a good one folks, nothing like those dreaded high school pop quizzes or college exams. While a quiz might not be the most obvious of these self-compassion exercises, it is an extraordinarily helpful tool. The questions are not hard, and the score you get will not determine your place in life.
This quiz is only 26 questions long, and will not take more than a few minutes. Furthermore, at the end of it, you will be able to quantifiably answer the question of how self-compassionate you are. Knowledge is power, folks.
It is not just any quiz either. Self-compassion is a growing field with a growing number of experts, and Dr. Kristin Neff is chief among them. She developed the Self-Compassion quiz below to help people determine how compassionate they are.
Remember, the score you receive on this quiz is not a judgment. It is not meant to make you feel good or bad about your self-compassion levels. Rather, it is simply meant to help you gain a clearer understanding of how compassionate you are toward yourself.
Self-Compassion Exercises #2: Affirmations
Even if you have already heard of affirmations, do not skip right over this exercise. Out of all these self-compassion exercises, this is one of the more all-encompassing ones. Affirmations can be lovely woo-woo flowery fluff but they can also be straightforward take-no-crap simplicity.
For example, both of the following statements can be used as affirmations:
- “I am a divine being full of goodness and light.”
- “I’m as human as anyone else and I get to make mistakes.”
Those statements are pretty different in degrees of aspirational tone and woo-woo flowery-ness. The thing is that people respond to different affirmations, well, differently. Some prefer a straightforward approach, while others find the woo-woo flowery stuff to be the most helpful.
It is kind of like how some people prefer math and others prefer language studies. Some people like their affirmations upbeat and inspirational while others prefer theirs to be basic and down to earth.
The point is to find affirmations that work for you–phrases that you can use to redirect your thoughts when you find yourself growing critical. Check out this list of affirmations for self-compassion if you are having a hard time thinking of any.
Incorporating affirmations can be difficult initially. Self-criticism is a habit, and breaking habits does not come easily. It helps to write down the critical thoughts that come naturally and the affirmations you intend to replace them with.
The Mental Health Daily Journal printable below provides an easy way to keep track of how things are going and things you can do to improve the process along the way.
Self-Compassion Exercises #3: Worksheets
If you like the worksheet above, good news! While self-compassion worksheets are not the easiest to find, often behind paywalls or member logins, I took the time to comb through the internet to find all the best ones you can access for free. You can check them out here.
Worksheets are great because they give you a solid direction to go in. It can be hard to figure out how to reroute your thoughts when they are overwhelmingly critical. Self-compassion worksheets take some of the guesswork out of switching things up.
The other great thing about worksheets is that the action of writing things down actually helps us to process them better. Several different parts of your brain have to work together to write. This means that brains typically keep track of handwritten information better than recited or typed information.
If you could use a little assistance figuring out how to redirect your thoughts and want it to stick. these worksheets are all fantastic self-compassion exercises.
Self-Compassion Exercises #4: Journaling
Just like physically writing something down makes worksheets more effective, it also makes journaling a great way to show yourself some compassion. While this is not the most obvious of all these self-compassion exercises, giving yourself the time and place to write out your thoughts is a beautiful gift.
Thoughts have a lot of power over us. They can be obsessive, overwhelming, and impossible to ignore sometimes. So stop ignoring them.
Writing your thoughts down in a journal gives you an opportunity to see them for what they are. Whether they are just a reminder that your brain is trying to send you or part of a deeper pattern, journaling allows you to observe and process through them.
Once you have written your thoughts and experiences down, it becomes easier to let them go or figure out what to do with them. Your brain does not have to fight so hard to keep track of the details because you have written them down. This frees up some mental space to start soothing or problem-solving.
Another great thing about journaling is that it does not have to take forever. It can be as simple as quickly jotting down the thoughts that will not give you rest. Easily tailored to you and your needs, journaling is a great exercise for self-compassion.
Self-Compassion Exercises #5: Loving-Kindness Meditation
This Loving-Kindness Meditation is also by Dr. Kristin Neff and is about 20 minutes long. It is a lovely way to take a break from self-criticism for a bit so your self-compassion can grow.
There are many different forms of loving-kindness meditations. The basic function is usually to cultivate kindness for others and for yourself. While self-kindness is a little different than self-compassion, they are related and one often leads to the other.
Kristin Neff’s guided meditation begins, like many meditations, with a few deep breaths. Then she walks you through some calming well-wishes for others in your life.
It is not uncommon to find it easier to be compassionate toward others than toward yourself. This meditation helps you establish feelings of care for others so that it is then easier to apply them toward yourself. She has a lovely, reassuring voice that only adds to the effectiveness of this meditation.
Self-Compassion Exercises #6: Treat Yourself as a Friend
We often treat ourselves with far more criticism than anyone else, especially people we like. If your best friend came to you in distress because they made a huge mistake, how would you respond?
You probably would not tell them that they are an idiot, or that they made a mistake because they are a failure. You would not tell them that they brought the mistake upon themselves with their neverending shortsightedness and inability to succeed.
Have you said anything like that to yourself though? That you are worthless, stupid, unworthy of love or success? If you have, you are not alone.
Again, many, many people experience self-criticism. It is inherent to perfectionism, which is becoming ever increasingly prevalent in society. A quick trick to combat it is to begin training yourself to respond to your shortcomings as you would to a friend.
How would you respond to a friend who came to you in distress? What words of comfort and cheer would you offer? How would you reassure them that they are still worthwhile even if they do make mistakes sometimes?
Think about it–really think about it, and write your answers to those questions down. Put your answers somewhere you can access them when you are upset so that you can begin responding to yourself the way you would to a friend.
Self-Compassion Exercises #7: Self-Compassion Letter
For just a moment, consider a time in your life when things were not going very well and you needed some words of encouragement. If someone could have said something to you that would have made all the difference, what would it have been?
No one knows you better than you do. Often we wish that others would come into our lives to tell us that we are on the right path, that we are worthwhile human beings, that we are loved, and that we belong.
Sometimes others do tell us that. Sometimes they do not.
The thing is, you do not have to wait for someone else to come and tell you all the words you need to hear. You can tell those words to yourself.
A self-compassion letter is kind of the long version of speaking to yourself as you would a friend. While it is a little more intensive than some of the other self-compassion exercises on this list, it is worth the effort.
While you write your letter to yourself, I recommend adding some of the following:
- Some reminders of times when you succeeded in your goals
- Talents and/or characteristics you appreciate in yourself
- Moments of your life when you felt at peace and what that felt like
- Hopes that you still have for yourself
Those are just suggestions–the idea is to write yourself something that will feel cozy and soothing when you read it, like a warm cup of tea or hot cocoa. You might even drink some tea or hot cocoa when you read it to increase your feelings of care and goodwill toward yourself.
Self-Compassion Exercises #8: Guided Meditation for Kindness
If you like self-compassion exercises that take some of the weight off of your shoulders, this guided meditation for kindness is a great one. Most people spend a lot of time focusing on ways their bodies or minds have let them down. This guided meditation for kindness is meant to help redirect negative thoughts about ourselves.
Gratitude is a core component to this meditation, and can be a powerful force for change in general. While gratitude certainly will not take your problems away, it helps remind you that even in the worst of times there are still good things.
It is not meant to make you ignore your problems. Ignored problems rarely go away. Rather, it is meant to give you some respite from them.
Difficult things are much easier to manage when everything is not awful. This guided meditation will help you shift your focus to gratitude for a little bit so that you are more capable of managing life’s difficulties.
These eight self-compassion exercises are just the beginning to a more compassionate relationship with yourself. Try a few of them out so you can determine which self-compassion exercises work better for you and which ones are not as effective.
As you experiment with what works for you, try to take notes so that you can make them work even better. Write down how they are beneficial and how they make you feel so that you know which ones to come back to later.
If you have any go-to self-compassion exercises that did not make it on this list, please share them in the comments below!