• Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

Could You Use Compassionate Self-Forgiveness?


woman covering her face; compassionate self-forgiveness
Did you make a mistake that you're struggling to forgive yourself for?

The ability to be kind to yourself and allow yourself to be human is called self-compassion. Everyone makes mistakes, but you may not forgive yourself easily, especially if you you're trained to be harsh and critical with yourself. How can you use compassionate self-forgiveness? What can you do to cultivate self compassion in the first place?


What is mindful self compassion?

Researchers Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer find that teaching people self-compassion can be very helpful for people with depression, anxiety, stress, and histories of childhood trauma. According to an article they’ve written, “self-compassion appears to facilitate resilience by moderating people’s reactions to negative events” (p. 857).[i]


Mindful self-compassion includes three main concepts, which are “kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness” (p. 856). By acknowledging and looking at your negative self-talk and difficult emotions, you become mindful of them. Instead of avoiding them, you create “mental space” that allows for a clearer, calmer perspective on your inner landscape. Taking that essential step back, you can evaluate whether what you are saying to yourself is helpful or hurtful.


Don’t automatically push negative thoughts away

By embracing negative thoughts rather than pushing them away suppressing them, mindful self-compassion can help you generate positive emotions. It has been linked in research to many psychological attributes including curiosity, wisdom, happiness, and emotional intelligence. Mindful self compassion can also enhance motivation to improve your life because it overcomes “maladaptive perfectionism” and fear of failure.


Can you be compassionate to yourself when you mess up?

Self-compassion has been successfully used in changing health habits such as smoking cessation and youight loss. It stands to reason that if you’re not hard on yourself, you’re more likely to try harder the next time in spite of mistakes. Then you can strive for better behavior and more skillful action.


How much easier life would be if you could use compassionate self-forgiveness when you try something and mess up? They can develop what’s called in Zen Buddhism Shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” In Shoshin, you do not expect anything from yourself. You approach life with curiosity, a desire to learn and grow. You accept that you will necessarily make mistakes; it’s part of the learning process for everyone. If you’re learning something for the first time, how realistic is it to think that you will do it correctly the first time, or even the first few times? Without preconceived notions, you can explore the world more freely and openly. You can allow yourself to approach new ideas and topics without preconceived notions or the threat of shame.


Other benefits of mindful self-compassion

Other benefits of mindful self-compassion are improved interpersonal functioning and feeling more emotionally attached to other people. When you accept ourselves as you are, you are able to do that more readily for others as well. Unfortunately, there are many aspects to our culture that are very divisive and judgmental. That harshness promotes criticism of yourself and others. Unfortunately, this rubs off on everyone to some degree. Luckily, mindful self-compassion seems to be a good antidote to that tendency.


A chance to practice compassionate self-forgiveness

cat and human hand interacting; compassionate self-forgiveness
Do you treat yourself as well as you treat others? Try some compassionate self-forgiveness

If you find that compassionate self-forgiveness is challenging, imagine that you could sort through all the experiences of corrective feedback that you received. You might even try writing down times in your life that people have told you that what you did was wrong. In another column on the same page, you can imagine what you would say to a dear friend or family member about those experiences.


Would you agree wholeheartedly with the harshness of whatever criticism you received, or would you modify what you told the person to reflect consideration of the person’s feelings? For example, if your mother berated you for not picking up after yourself and called you a lazy pig, you could write something in the other columns such as, “I’d like you to put more effort into picking up after yourself. I understand that this isn’t fun and it may be difficult at times to remember, but I know that you’ll do a good job and I appreciate your effort.” You can use art and journaling to explore what comes up when you do this exercise.


Here is another exercise to build your self-compassion muscle. Picture someone in your life who bothers you and think of all their and irritating qualities. Notice how you feel about them, and then how you feel about yourself. Notice how your body responds to those negative thoughts. Do you notice anything in your shoulders, hips, muscles, etc.?


Now think about that same person but in positive terms, focusing on ways they have helped you or others, or ways that helped you grow as a person through your interactions. As you think about their positive attributes, notice again how you feel about him or her, about yourself, and physical responses to these thoughts. Chances are, you feel lighter and less stressed with the latter part of the exercise.


Other ways to build mindful self-compassion

Another practice is the “self-compassion break,” in which a person repeats the following phrases whenever he or she is upset in daily life: “’this is a moment of suffering’ (mindfulness), ‘suffering is a part of life’ (common humanity), and ’may I be kind to myself’ (self-kindness). Together, the phrases help an individual to disengage from rumination, feel less isolated, and begin to comfort him or herself” (pp. 861-862). Realizing that everyone suffers, and that you are not uniquely chosen to suffer more than any other person on the planet, can be a comforting concept for us all.


Additionally, it can help you to engage in mindful activity informally in your daily life, to cultivate the space for self-compassion. Research has shown that self-compassion is useful for healing from many mental disorders, past trauma and stress from daily life. Many intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits flow from developing this skill. Hopefully, this is whetted your appetite for more kindness towards yourself and learning more about mindful self-compassion. If you want to learn more about becoming self-compassionate and learning to use compassionate self-forgiveness, please give me a call at 661-233-6771.

[i] Germer, C. And Neff, K. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69(8), 856-867.

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