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Self Compassion: A Magical Skill

June '13

A previous issue of Midlife Discovery focused on forgiveness, but a reader named Roberta noted, “You didnt talk about forgiving yourself. Perhaps you can talk about that.” I liked her idea of exploring the power of self forgiveness, or more broadly speaking, self compassion.

Kristin Neff, PhD, teaches and writes about self compassion at the University of Texas, Austin. Her book, Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind is now on my reading list after listening to a recent interview with her.

Neff advocates self compassion as an antidote to the self criticism folks seem to engage in so automatically. She describes self-criticism as that negative voice you hear inside your head your inner critic. Life coaches often call these judgmental voices “gremlins”.

Neff’s first directive is to let go of labeling self criticism as a problem. Instead, she recommends cultivating compassion for your inner critic. This “not good enough” voice comes from a desire to keep you safe, to keep you from being rejected and to help you maintain social relations.

Self criticism arrives when your self concept is threatened. For example, you trip over a chair, and mentally say, “you klutz!” This judgment is triggered in a flash, unconsciously. As Neff points out, this response means you’re attacking yourself in an effort to control yourself.

But I have a question for you, how motivating do you find criticism as a way of changing behavior? If you’re like most kids and adults – not much. Instead, Neff advocates self compassion as a way to take care of yourself.

Self awareness lies at the heart of Neff’s approach. You need to be aware of your inner critic at work – i.e. after you trip over a chair, and mentally say, “you klutz,” you realize your inner critic just spoke.

However, as you become cognizant of your inner critic at work, your gremlins will probably continue to work more furiously. For example, after noticing your self critic just spoke, you may then judge yourself for judging yourself as a klutz. Yikes! Did I say gremlins are tricky?

When you feel threatened in any way, that evokes your inner critic, Neff suggests you put your hand on your heart, say to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering. This is really hard. Suffering is a way of life – part of the shared experience. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”

Your comforting and kind words to yourself might differ from Neff’s, but you get the idea. Self compassion can be a challenge to learn; it’s a practice to be developed over time.

Perhaps you already have a practice of self compassion. If so, I’d love to hear about it. If not, you can lower your stress level and begin today.

Happy summer!


P.S. If you’d like to discover more about your own personal gremlins and how they work, Reinvent Your Life ~ Write Now, a Coaching eCourse devotes a week to that topic. You can learn more here.



  1. Maryann Loveday said on June 30, 2013:

    Thank you for this poignant nudge to be kind to ourselves.The image of putting a hand on one’s heart is a reminder of our inner strength. As we feel each beat we can be more aware of the power we possess in making our own life choices, and choosing kindness over criticism. Practicing kindness to ourselves has the potential for extending it forward.

  2. Bonnie said on June 30, 2013:

    Thank you, Maryann for reminding us that kindness to ourselves is the starting point for extending that practice to others!


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