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Self-Compassion: How Being Nice to Yourself is Bigger than it Sounds

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Self-compassion, while sometimes underestimated, can be an effective, research-backed approach to addressing mental health challenges. It has been used and widely studied in different fields — for example as a means of helping nurses deal with job-related stress and anxiety, to aiding in addiction recovery in teens. It is now offered as a group therapy option through the University Psychological Clinic. Read on to learn more about what it is, why it is effective, and how to incorporate it into your practice or your life.

Self-Compassion: What is it?

“It’s the same compassion we extend to others but in this case, we extend it to ourselves.”

This, in a few, simple words, is how Mika Handelman, Ph.D. describes the practice of self-compassion. But, despite the simplicity of its description, it is harder to cultivate and practice than one may initially believe.

There’s a stigma around the term “self-compassion,” one that arises from its association with words like self-pity, self-indulgence, and self-esteem. By establishing the first Self-Compassion Group Therapy program at the University Psychological Clinic, Mika hopes to reclaim the term by helping participants find the place of compassion and mindfulness in their own lives.

“Compassion is something that we all value, but if we only give it to other people, we are drawing this arbitrary distinction between the self and others,” Mika explained. “I think to live more happy, fulfilling, meaningful lives, it’s hard to do that without self-compassion. There’s a quality of life piece as well as a more clinical piece.”

How it Began

While self-compassion may sound like a simple, new age-y approach to addressing mental health “lite,” it’s not. The roots of self-compassion reach deeply into both science and philosophy. Mika referenced a quote from the Buddhist tradition: “When love meets suffering and stays loving, that’s compassion.” It was the Buddhist belief in mindfulness — combined with its ideas of compassion — that laid the groundwork for self-compassion as a clinical practice.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s, however, that Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the practice of meditation and mindfulness as a way of cultivating a less stressed, more aware self. Trained in the Buddhist tradition, Kabat-Zinn disassociated mindfulness from a religious context and centered on the scientific benefits of it. The stress reduction clinics he founded provided the basis for researchers and clinicians in the 1990s, who would use Kabat-Zinn’s work to pioneer self-compassion therapy — taking it into the formal therapeutic setting.

It is here, in the intersecting lines of therapy and research that Mika’s self-compassion program finds its footing. Between Kristin Neff, a researcher who emphasizes self-compassion for the layperson, and John Gilbert, a doctor who focuses on the deeply clinical side of self-compassion, Handelman offers a median: mindfulness meets intentional experience.

“The experiential component is so important, not only as a coping tool but as a different way of relating to yourself, relating to your own suffering, and relating to the world,” she said. “You don’t do that by thinking your way through; you do it by experiencing it differently.”

Where You can Start

What sounds simple in words can be difficult in execution: how do you achieve a new experience? Through the therapy sessions, Handelman will explores both speaking and writing to place past experiences in a new light.

An example: Imagine a difficult situation you have lived through. Think it through as you — what are your thoughts about it? Then, think it through as a compassionate friend. Detach yourself from your narrative and see it from their perspective. Does it change the story? Do you give the person in the story the benefit of the doubt? Do you consider alternative motivations and understandings of why things were done the way they were done?

Another, more abstract exercise involves the use of a compassionate color — not a friend or family member, but simply a color. By removing the person from the story and replacing him or her with a color, it removes the potential threat of another person. In this context, Mika explained, a “threat” can stem from an individual’s experience with or without compassion. If a person hasn’t received it or is naturally averse to it because of traumatic relationships, they can shut down. Mika’s use of self-compassion therapy opens up ways of thinking and acting that weren’t available to a person before.

This is where self-compassion moves beyond a philosophical concept and delves into the careful and science-supported work of professionals. It is a practice that requires learning and disciplined action in order to fundamentally change how we view ourselves in relation to the world around us.

Mika became interested in self-compassion as a therapy approach through a mixture of personal and clinic experiences.

“I used to be really hard on myself in terms of personal and professional imperfections,” she said. “Reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection — it opened up a whole new world for me and completely changed my ability to navigate the Ph.D. program. It was actually from my own personal interest that this grew, and I kept it on the backburner. Working with clients here, it reminded me how this can be applied to the clinical setting.”

Self-compassion in Practice

Mika has watched self-compassion change how individuals view traumatic experiences and how they come to cope with them. In learning the practice of self-compassion, her clients rely less on self-criticism, shame, and guilt when talking about themselves and past trauma. It becomes the mode through which they begin to open up and move forward — past negative feelings toward recovery.

By integrating self-compassion therapy with other methods of treatment, Mika said she has seen results. Offering self-compassion therapy on its own as a group therapy is a way of overcoming feelings of guilt and criticism that can weigh heavy on the heart, in a supportive, compassionate environment. She champions three components at the root of self-compassion — mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. She hopes it will give clients “a better sense of their strengths” and “a better connection to themselves and other people” that will lead to an improved quality of life.

What’s Next

If this sounds like a good path for you or someone you know dealing with a traumatic past or current mental health challenge, the University of Michigan Psychological Clinic self-compassion group begins mid-July and runs for eight weeks. The Clinic develops other sessions as needed. For more information on registering, call (734) 764-3471.