Mental Health

4 Secrets to Experiencing Self-Compassion and Genuine Joy

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Showing yourself compassion sparks joy and confidence — but this emotional honesty can also stir up past hurts. Here, how to shut the door on stress while letting in self-compassion and genuine joy.

Ashamed? Take comfort in ‘affectionate’ breathing.

As you begin to show yourself kindness, you make stress-relief a priority. So when your church asks you to tackle extra volunteer work, you politely say no because you’re burned out. Suddenly you find yourself thinking, I should have said yes, I’m a bad person. “Shame is the biggest block to self compassion,” says researcher Kristin Neff, PhD. “It hollows us out and makes us want to hide.”

When shame arises, simply slow down. “Take 3 minutes for ‘affectionate’ breathing, connecting with the internal rocking of your breath,” urges Neff. “Picture the rhythm of an ocean wave or being held and rocked as you inhale and exhale,” she says, explaining that shame makes you want to disappear, the opposite of showing yourself compassion. But the motion of your breath is the force of life, reminding you that you are here, you are worthy. “When you begin to practice self-compassion , don’t rush it,” she says. “If you feel backdraft, the sense you’re not entitled to kindness, focus on what you need in the moment — make a cup of tea, cuddle your pet and, yes, breathe.

Feeling unworthy? ‘Hug’ an old snapshot of yourself.

When you miss a deadline, you reassure yourself that it’s okay, and you’re still good at your job. So you’re taken aback when memories of all the times you didn’t feel good enough, as far back as childhood, bubble up. “Self-compassion stirs the pot of the past,” says Christopher Germer, PhD, co-author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook (Buy on Amazon, $17.86). “Hurt feelings often resurface.”

To help soothe pain from years ago, just pull out an old photo of yourself. If, say, you remember being convinced that you were somehow ‘less than’ when you were 12 years old, display a picture of yourself at that age, and put it somewhere you’ll pass by often, encourages Germer. “Every time you look at the photo, tell that girl, I love you just the way you are — you didn’t feel good enough back then, but look at you today and all you’ve accomplished.” Consider putting your hand on your heart to help soothe this old pain. “An amazing thing will happen inside you— you’ll love that girl in the photo and when you feel loved, you feel safe.”

Angry at others? Get grounded in your soles.

You used to turn the cheek when folks took advantage of your kindness. But as you show yourself more compassion and realize greater self-worth, something awakens in you: indignation. Says Germer, “When you treat yourself fairly, you realize you’re also entitled to being treated fairly by others, and that can spark suppressed anger.”

The first step to diffusing this fiery emotion is acknowledging it. “Just name it: Oh, this is backdraft; I’m angry, that’s okay,” observes Germer. Then take a moment to focus on your…feet. “When you feel an intense, destabilizing emotion, the best way to deal with it is to ground yourself,” adds Neff. “Focus on how your feet feel on the floor or carpet. Whenever you can concentrate on a single sensation, your attention will be completely absorbed, settling you down.” Once you’re calm, explore your anger. “Ask yourself, Why am I angry? What are the ‘softer’ feelings behind it — fear or sadness?” urges Germer. Once you uncover these emotions, you can show yourself the ultimate kindness of addressing them.

Reeling from rejection? Picture a compassionate friend.

Accepting yourself is at the heart of self-compassion. But as you begin to do just that, you admit how painful the opposite of this acceptance has been. Whether you’ve felt rejection at your own hands through self-recrimination or others have made you feel alienated in the past, this emotion is so overwhelming, it can make continuing to practice self-compassion difficult. “When we feel rejected, we adopt coping behaviors, like withdrawal,” says Germer. “People going through this form of backdraft often say, I haven’t felt this shy in years, because they’re trying to protect themselves from being vulnerable again.”

To heal feelings of isolation, just imagine a pal at your side. “Simply visualizing a compassionate friend calms the nervous system,” reveals Germer. “What would she tell you? Instead of letting you retreat further, she might say, It’s a beautiful day — let’s take ourselves out for coffee.” Picturing a friend giving you permission to show yourself love is often all the inspiration you need. In fact, envisioning others connects you to our “common humanity,” adds Neff. “We’re all human and self-compassion connects us not only to ourselves but to one another.”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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