15 minutes. While it may be hard to find time to do this practice every time you are struggling with a difficult situation, an initial goal could be to try it once a month.
How to Do It
Take out a sheet of paper or open a blank document on your computer and go through the following steps.
- First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him- or herself or is really struggling in some way. How do you respond to your friend in these situations (if you’re at your best)? Please write down what you typically do and say, and note the tone in which you talk to your friend.
- Now think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Please write down what you typically do and say, and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
- Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
- Write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself when you’re suffering in the same way you typically respond to a close friend.
- Next time you are struggling with something, try treating yourself like a good friend and see what happens.
Why You Should Try It
Research suggests that people are usually harder on themselves than they are on others. Rather than motivating them to succeed, this often makes a mistake or stressful situation even more stressful—to the point that they’ll simply avoid new or challenging experiences for fearing of failing and eliciting a new wave of self-criticism.
This exercise asks you to notice the differences between the way you typically treat the people you care about and the way you typically treat yourself. It also asks you to consider why there may be differences between the two, and to contemplate what would happen if you treated yourself as compassionately as you treat others. Research suggests that treating yourself more compassionately can benefit your physical and mental health.
Why It Works
Research suggests that the way people treat themselves is shaped in part by how others have treated them, but it can also be influenced by how they treat others. Because people often find it more natural to be compassionate toward others than to be compassionate toward themselves in a challenging situation, one way to increase self-compassion is to imagine what one would say to a friend in a similar position, then direct those same sentiments toward oneself.
Reflecting on how kind you are capable of being toward others can remind you that you are also capable of being kind toward yourself—and that you deserve compassion, too. By treating yourself with this kind of sympathy and understanding—rather than beating yourself up—you help yourself bounce back from challenging situations with greater resilience.
Evidence That It Works
Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28-44.
Participants in an eight-week Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, which included learning exercises like this one, reported feeling greater self-compassion at the end of the program than they had at the beginning. Their self-compassion at the end of the eight weeks was also greater than that of a comparison group that didn’t participate in the program. The MSC participants also reported greater mindfulness and life satisfaction, and lower depression, anxiety, and stress, than the comparison group.
Breines, J., & Chen, S. (2013). Activating the inner caregiver: The role of support-giving schemas in increasing state self-compassion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 58-64.
Participants who recalled a time when they gave emotional support to a friend or who gave actual support (in writing) to another person reported greater self-compassion for themselves around a problem with which they were struggling, compared with participants who didn’t think about supporting a friend.
When you're struggling, are you a friend to yourself—or a harsh critic? Take our Self-Compassion quiz to find out: