6 min|Dr. Jam Caleda
Mindfulness Training: Learning to Write Letters of Self-CompassionWellness
Imagine there is something that you really want, or maybe a goal that you’ve set for yourself. Now imagine that you just received the third failure toward that goal. Create the scenario in your mind and try to imagine how another rejection or failure feels like. Imagine the critical things you would say about yourself. What types of judgments or disapproving comments would your self-talk whisper to you?
Notice how this feels.
Now, create the same scenario of envisioning your desire or goals and getting rejected or failing three times. But switch gears, and now instead of the negative self talk that we all default to, try to experience compassion toward yourself. What would you say? What kinds of words would conjure when you practice self-compassion?
Notice how this feels.
Did one way feel better? More honest?
Self-Criticism and Motivation
Many of us find it easier to believe the harsh words rather than the kind messages. Why is it that we can experience compassion for others, but it be more difficult when the compassion is directed toward ourselves?
It is because many of us believe that self-criticism is motivating. That somehow all the negative self talk will lead to change. And this is a deep-seated belief in the psyche of most of us. It may stem from our childhoods, when we were exploring our moral compass. But what science tells us, is that as adults this self-criticism when we fail is far more destructive to whom we are and the goals that we are trying to achieve.
This default mode of disapproval actually plays a much larger role in motivating us to quit rather than to succeed. Psychological research shows that people who are more self-critical have a lower threshold of self-control and motivation in their goals than people who are compassionate with themselves (1,2,3). This has been shown again and again, especially in people who are trying to make difficult changes in their lives.
These are people who are overcoming addiction to cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, people who are trying to lose weight, but even in ordinary procrastinators. One of the reasons this occurs is because most of these behaviours are coping strategies. We turn to these activities to address stress, and they are our attempts to make us feel better during that stressful experience.
When we are trying to make a change that is difficult, it’s only natural that we turn to the things that will make us feel better.
Let’s take for example the dieter that eats too much for lunch. Let’s say that this person slips off their nutritional track that they set for themselves and instead of eating the meal that they planned they revert to a cheeseburger. Their voice of self-criticism weaves a story that makes them feel bad. They are then more likely to spiral into the behavior that gives them comfort, so in this case it will be the food that the dieter is trying to avoid.
This is what makes self-criticism of the default mode so destructive; it perpetuates and reinforces the behaviors that we have set out to change.
So how do we turn self-criticism into self-compassion? To do this, we must understand self-compassion. Psychological researchers have defined it to have three qualities: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness (4). Mindfulness is the act of noticing your own vulnerabilities, pain, and suffering. It includes the process of staying with these feelings of discomfort but to separate from them.
Think about how it is to be compassionate to a loved one. We can see their pain, but we don’t get caught up in it. We can separate from their emotions, and this gives us the space to be able to do the things we can to help them through their suffering. Common humanity is the idea that we all go through similar experiences in life. It involves remembering that everyone else suffers and that we all make mistakes but that does not define us as a bad person. It allows space for collective empathy and understanding that we can apply to ourselves.
Self-kindness is the last and most important aspect. This is different from self-indulgence, because it is not a way to feel better, bolster, or praise yourself. Self-kindness involves remembering what means most to us, acknowledging our aspirations and needs, and then being a mentor to ourselves. It allows us to take a step away and see things that we have done to get here, then honoring the self as a process. Research shows that people who practice self-compassion experience less suffering (5,6).
Write a letter of compassion to yourself. Write about what bothers you, your struggles, and your anxieties and acknowledge them. Write about what you don't and do understand about these feelings. Then, give yourself a few words of encouragement, like something you would say to a loved one. Do this everyday for at least a week. And see what happens.
This idea was something that I read in Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Neuroscience of Change, (7) and it involves writing a letter of self compassion to yourself. It came from a study that involved participants writing a letter of compassion to themselves everyday for a week, and what it showed is that the people who performed this improved their happiness and reduced depression. What was impressive is that, the happiness they felt didn't just improve for the week that they practiced the exercise, but they had experienced lasting effects up to at least six months later (8).
This exercise teaches what it means to be self-compassionate, and drives it in. At the end of the day, we are all here together, change is always happening, and when we become mindful of this and know that it’s okay to slip, we can be better equipped to give ourselves a little compassion.
- Powers, Theodore A., Richard Koestner, and David C. Zuroff. "Self-criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 26.7 (2007): 826-840.
- Blatt, Sidney J., et al. "Dependency and self-criticism: psychological dimensions of depression." Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 50.1 (1982): 113.
- Carver, Charles S., and Ronald J. Ganellen. "Depression and components of self-punitiveness: High standards, self-criticism, and overgeneralization." Journal of abnormal Psychology 92.3 (1983): 330.
- Neff, Kristin D., and Katie A. Dahm. "Self-compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness." Mindfulness and self-regulation. New York: Springer (2014).
- Smeets, Elke, et al. "Meeting Suffering With Kindness: Effects of a Brief Self‐Compassion Intervention for Female College Students." Journal of clinical psychology 70.9 (2014): 794-807.
- Pauley, Gerard, and Susan McPherson. "The experience and meaning of compassion and self‐compassion for individuals with depression or anxiety." Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 83.2 (2010): 129-143.
- McGonigal, Kelly. The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-based Program for Personal Transformation. Sounds True, 2012.
- Neff, Kristin D., and Christopher K. Germer. "A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self‐compassion program." Journal of clinical psychology 69.1 (2013): 28-44.