“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
We know about the importance of love and compassion for others. As the Dalai Lama stated, humanity cannot survive without these characteristics.
I’ve always loved this quote, in part because it can be taken two ways: Either humanity will become physically extinct without love and compassion, or humanity will become metaphorically extinct without love and compassion, meaning these two concepts are intrinsic parts of what it means to be human (find more self-acceptance quotes here).
I tend to take the second perspective, but either way, the Dalai Lama’s meaning is clear: We must cultivate love and compassion if we hope to survive and thrive as a species.
Another insightful quote about compassion also comes from the Dalai Lama :
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Compassion, then, is not only a vital piece of our humanity, it is also an extremely effective tool for improving our lives and the lives of others.
Fortunately, it is not all that difficult to cultivate a sense of compassion for others. It’s fairly easy to develop compassion, beginning with those we love, moving on to those we like, continuing to those we don’t know, and finally widening our compassionate circle to encompass those we actively dislike.
Unfortunately, developing compassion for the self can be far more difficult.
If you struggle to show yourself compassion, you have come to the right place. In this piece, we will provide several excellent resources, helpful exercises, and information-packed worksheets to help you develop, maintain, and regularly practice self-compassion.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself, but also give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
This Article Contains:
6 Self-Compassion Exercises
These self-compassion exercises come from the brilliant mind of the leading expert on self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff (n.d.). Read on to learn about six of her best exercises for enhancing your self-compassion.
How Would You Treat a Friend?
Perhaps the single best way to provoke compassion for yourself is through this exercise: treating yourself like a good friend.
It’s easy to give our friends love, compassion, and understanding, even when they fail or make a mistake. It can be much harder to extend that same understanding and compassion to ourselves when we make a mistake.
Follow these instructions to start showing yourself more compassion:
- First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about them or is really struggling in some way. How would you respond to your friend in this situation (especially when you’re at your best)? Please write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
- 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, what you 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?
- Please write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering.
An exercise like this can be a first step toward treating yourself like a good friend – not just for a quick, 10-minute exercise, but for life. Click here to see this exercise on Dr. Neff’s page.
Another good exercise to help you improve your understanding and love for yourself is the Self-Compassion Break. It will only take a few minutes, but it can make a big difference.
To begin, bring to mind a situation in your life that is causing you stress or pain. Think about this situation and how it makes you feel, both emotionally and physically.
When you have this situation in mind and get in touch with the feelings associated with it, say the following things to yourself:
- “This is a moment of suffering.”
This will activate mindfulness; other options include “This hurts,” “This is stress,” and, simply, “Ouch.”
- “Suffering is a part of life.”
Saying this helps you realize that you have this in common with all other human beings on the planet – suffering is an unavoidable part of life. You can follow this by putting your hands over your heart or using whatever soothing self-touch feels right to you. Other options include saying “Other people feel this way,” “I’m not alone,” or “We all struggle in our lives.”
- “May I be kind to myself.”
Alternatively, you can use other phrases that may apply better in your current situation, such as “May I forgive myself” or “May I be patient.”
Great relief can come from simply affirming that you are experiencing suffering, a difficult but natural part of life, and stating your intention to be kind, patient, or accepting of yourself.
To read about this exercise on Dr. Neff’s website, click here.
Exploring Self-Compassion Through Writing
This three-part exercise can be especially helpful for those who like to write or are particularly adept at expressing themselves via the written word. However, even if you’re not a proficient writer, this exercise is a great opportunity to practice some self-compassion.
Follow the instructions below to try your hand at self-compassion through writing.
First, think about the imperfections that make you feel inadequate. Everyone has at least a few things they don’t like about themselves or makes them feel “not good enough.”
Consider these things that you feel insecure about. If there is one issue that is particularly salient for you at the moment, focus on this insecurity.
Note how you feel when you think about it. Notice the emotions that come up, and let yourself experience them. We are so often desperate to avoid feeling anything negative, but negative feelings are an inherent part of life. Additionally, negative feelings can often provoke positive outcomes, like self-compassion.
Simply feel the emotions that thinking about your insecurity dredges up, then write about them.
Once you have written about these emotions, you can move on to the second part of this exercise: writing a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend.
This exercise will call upon your tendency to show compassion and understanding to your friends, and encourage you to apply it to yourself as well.
Imagine a friend who is unconditionally loving, kind, compassionate, and accepting. Next, imagine they have all of your strengths and all of your weaknesses, including the feelings of inadequacy you just wrote about.
Think about how this friend feels about you: They love you, accept you, and act kindly toward you. Even when you make a mistake or do something hurtful, this friend is quick to forgive and understand.
Not only is this friend completely understanding and compassionate, but they know all about your life. They know how you got to where you are, they know about all the millions of little choices that you made along the way, and they understand that several factors have contributed to the person you are today.
Write a letter from the perspective of this imaginary, unconditionally loving friend. Focus the letter on the inadequacies you wrote about in part one. Think about what this all-compassionate friend would say to you.
Would they tell you that you must be perfect, and any weakness is unacceptable? Or would this friend tell you that they understand why you feel that way, but that we are all human and imperfect?
Would they berate you for your feelings of insecurity or inadequacy? Or would they encourage you to accept yourself as you are, and remind you of your strengths?
Write this letter with the friend’s feelings for you in mind; make sure that their love, compassion, and kindness are at the forefront of their message to you.
Once you finish the letter, put it down and walk away for a while. Give yourself some space from the letter.
When you come back, read it again – but read it with the intention to really let the words sink in. Don’t read it as a note that you wrote a few minutes or hours ago; read it as if it is really from this unconditionally loving friend.
Open yourself up to their compassion and let yourself experience it, soothing and comforting you. Allow their compassion to sink into you and become your own compassion for yourself.
To follow these instructions directly from Dr. Neff’s website, click here.
Changing Your Critical Self-Talk
This exercise is meant to be practiced over the long term and will require several sessions to be truly impactful on your compassion for yourself. It is vital that you keep up on these three steps, but the reward for doing so will be well worth the time you spent.
There are three steps to this exercise that you will repeat several times.
In step one, all you need to do is notice when you are being critical of yourself and take note of the words, tone, phrases, etc., you use with yourself. It’s easy to be critical of ourselves, but it’s harder to notice all of these factors. You will likely have trouble noticing these things the first or second time you try, but don’t give up! It will get easier the more you practice it.
The goal of this step is to simply get a sense of how you talk to yourself when you are criticizing yourself or being negative about yourself. It is not only practically challenging to get a sense of how you talk to yourself, it can also be emotionally challenging to confront the reality of how you talk to yourself.
It might bring up a lot of difficult or intense emotions, but remember that the next two steps are meant to help you become more positive about yourself. You’ll get there!
In step one, you begin to challenge the negative self-talk. Begin to “talk back” to the critical voice in your head. Don’t take on the same critical tone with this voice in your head. Although you may want to be nasty to this voice, that will just encourage self-judgment instead of self-compassion!
Tell the voice that you understand that the voice is nervous, anxious, or worried about getting hurt, but that it is causing you unnecessary pain. Ask the critical voice to allow your compassionate self to speak for a few moments.
Finally, work on reframing the observations made by the critical voice. Put them in a more positive perspective, perhaps with the help of the “unconditionally compassionate” friend from the last exercise. Instead of allowing the critical voice to berate you for a choice you made, put on your “self-compassionate” or “compassionate friend” hat and view the situation with a focus on the positive.
For instance, if you feel horrible for saying something mean to a friend, don’t allow your critical voice to have full control in your mind. Let your compassionate self take over and say something like, “I know you made a mean comment to your friend and that you feel bad about it. You thought it might feel good to get that off your chest, but you just felt worse after.
I want you to be happy, so please think about calling your friend and apologizing. It will feel good to make up with her.”
You can even pair this positive self-talk with loving physical gestures, like stroking your arm or giving yourself a hug. However you do it, engaging in this kind of positive self-talk will help you to start being more kind to yourself, which will eventually lead to genuine feelings of warmth and love for yourself.
You can learn more about compassion training in this article.
Identifying What We Really Want
Another three-part exercise can help you to figure out what you want and motivate yourself to achieve it in a healthy and effective way. This exercise also must be practiced regularly to experience the full benefits it can offer.
Piggy-backing off of the previous exercise, step one of this exercise concerns your negative self-talk and its harmful impact on you. You may not immediately connect any harmful outcomes to this negative self-talk, but you can be sure that constant streams of critical self-talk make your head a toxic and inhospitable place.
Think about what you tend to criticize yourself for, perhaps in the hopes that being hard on yourself will motivate you to change. Open yourself up to the emotional pain that this criticism causes and offer yourself compassion for the feeling of being judged.
In the next phase, challenge yourself to come up with a more kind, caring way to motivate yourself. Consider how you would encourage a close friend or family member. Think about how a wise and nurturing parent, teacher, or mentor would tell you that your behavior is not helping you to reach your goals, and recommend new ways to move closer to them.
Come up with the most supportive message you can think of that mirrors your underlying wish to be happy, healthy, and productive.
Whenever you catch yourself criticizing or being judgmental towards yourself, repeat step one. Open yourself up to the feelings that these thoughts bring. Then, offer yourself compassion for experiencing this kind of judgment.
Once you have shown yourself compassion, try to reframe your inner dialogue, as you did in step two. Use the encouraging and supportive voice instead of the critical voice, and offer yourself understanding and actionable suggestions for positive change. Remind yourself that love is a much more powerful motivator than fear!
To see Dr. Neff’s original description of this exercise, click here.
Guided meditation can also be a great way to enhance your self-compassion.
Click here to listen to or download several unique self-compassion focused guided meditations.
2 Worksheets for Increasing Compassion (PDFs)
If you’re more of a “fill in the blanks” type of person, or prefer following along on a handout or worksheet, you may find this section helpful.
Two of the most popular and useful worksheets for building self-compassion are listed below.
Letter of self-compassion
To encourage self-compassion, try this self-compassion exercise, which can help you take a step back and consider an event in your life with more acceptance, care, and support.
We are often too hard on ourselves, and writing a loving letter to yourself as if you were talking to a close friend can help you along the path to self-acceptance and self-compassion.
Once you’ve finished the letter, read it back and consider the emotions you’ve expressed and are currently feeling.
A conversation with the inner child
There is a childlike element within all of us, one who still needs tender love and support. Use this exercise to show yourself compassion in the form of addressing your inner child.
The exercise is a series of questions that imagine a conversation between yourself now and a younger version, thinking back to difficult times you experienced as a child (and how they may affect you know) as well as how your past self would interpret current events in your life.
How to Love and Accept Yourself
This is one of the most difficult questions to answer: How do I love myself?
For some, it seems so easy! There are many people who will readily acknowledge their love for themselves, without shame or reticence.
Others may struggle with the idea of loving themselves, either because they don’t even like themselves or because the concept of loving oneself seems on par with narcissism (spoiler alert: It’s not!).
However difficult you find it to love and accept yourself, there are steps you can take to enhance your compassion, acceptance, and love for yourself.
In his book, Deeper Dating, Page (2015) notes that loving ourselves is inherently dependent on those around us. We may not struggle to appreciate our easy-to-love side, positive traits, and good characteristics, but we all likely struggle to love our flaws and weaknesses. This is where the care and compassion of others can open us up to the possibility of loving even the most unlovable aspects of ourselves.
However, this involves making ourselves vulnerable. The risk to our egos can potentially result in great intimacy with loved ones and, as an indirect result, authentic love for our authentic selves.
If you’re looking to enhance your self-love, Page (2015) suggests beginning by learning more about our “true” and “false” selves. Answering these two questions can help with this:
- What parts of your authentic self did you have to hide or camouflage in your childhood?
- In your current relationships, where are you confined to too small a space? What parts of yourself are you not expressing?
If you noticed that the things you are most passionate about or most gifted in are the same things you suppress, don’t be surprised. Page (2015) states that this is a common phenomenon. To unlock your full potential and embrace your passions and gifts, you must open yourself up to others.
Think about which of your friends, family members, or other loved ones are most supportive of you and your passions or gifts. Which of them are encouraging and generous? Which of them are not intimidated by your talents or envious of your abilities? Identify these supportive people, and cherish your relationships with them. Lean on these positive presences in your life, and give back to them when you can (Page, 2015).
Opening yourself up to such relationships will bolster your ability to open yourself up to your own love and compassion, leading to a healthier, happier, and more compassionate you!
If you are struggling in your relationships with others or simply want to focus on yourself instead of your friends and family members at the moment, Paul (2014) has outlined some steps you can take to enhance your love for yourself.
Paul calls this process “inner bonding” and notes its powerful healing abilities. All you need to do is practice these six steps regularly to gradually enhance your ability to love yourself.
Step one – Be willing to feel pain and take responsibility for your feelings
First, understand that all of our feelings are messages to ourselves that contain vital information. This step is designed to help you open yourself up to what your feelings are trying to tell you.
This is an excellent place to practice mindful self-compassion since it will help you to get present in your body, open yourself up to your feelings, and meet them with compassion. This step is all about moving towards your feelings, even the difficult ones, rather than moving away from pain.
Accept that you are responsible for your feelings. You may not have complete control over them, but you get to choose how to respond to them. Avoid any form of self-abandonment, including staying too focused in your own head, judging yourself, turning to substances to tune out the problems, or blaming others for your feelings.
Step two – Move into the intent to learn
In this inner bonding process, there are only two intentions you can possibly have at any one time:
- To protect against pain and avoid responsibility for it, using harmful behaviors like addiction and attempts to control.
- To learn about what you’re doing or thinking that may be causing you pain so you can take loving action on your own behalf.
It can be tough to move out of intention #1, but moving to intention #2 is the only way for us to make progress and begin to love ourselves. We must consciously choose to learn about ourselves, and open ourselves up to our “higher self” rather than wallowing in our “lower self.”
Step three – Learn about your false beliefs
False beliefs – unfortunately, we all have them. In the process of learning to love ourselves, it is vital that we identify our false beliefs.
This involves a deep and compassionate process of exploration, probing your inner self about the beliefs and values at your core, and connecting your beliefs to a person or situation that is causing you pain.
You can conduct this exploration through asking your feeling self, or inner child, “What am I thinking or doing that’s causing the painful feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, jealousy, anger, loneliness, or emptiness?” Allow the answer to come from your inner, authentic self, directly from the source of your feelings.
When you have a handle on what you are thinking or doing that is causing these feelings, explore your wounded ego to identify the fears and false beliefs you have that have led you to the self-abandoning thoughts and actions. Identifying your false beliefs is a vital step towards challenging these beliefs, accepting yourself, and loving yourself.
Step four – Dialogue with your higher self
It might seem impossibly difficult to connect with your higher self, but Paul (2014) insists it is easier than you think. You must open yourself up to loving yourself before any answers will come, but they will come eventually.
It may take only minutes for you to make important connections and discover new understandings of yourself, or it may take days, weeks, or months. These insights may only come in images in your mind, or they may show up in your dreams.
However they show up, know that they will show up if your heart is open to them – it’s only a matter of time.
Step five – Take the loving action learned in step four
Next, take the insights you gained in step four and apply them to your life.
Did you notice that your stress or depression often arise because you don’t tend to your own needs? Make sure to tend to your own needs.
Did you discover that you often assign the worst possible opinions about yourself to others, even when they haven’t signaled any such opinions? Stop yourself when you head in this direction and remind yourself that you can’t know what others are thinking – assuming the worst is usually both wrong and unhelpful.
If you’re struggling with this step, remember that asking “What can I DO to love myself?” is a far better question than “How can I FEEL love for myself?” It’s much harder to conjure a desired feeling out of thin air than it is to take actions that will help you authentically experience the desired feeling.
Step six – Evaluate your action
Check in with yourself after step five. Did the loving action you took help you to shed some of your anger and shame? Did it soothe your pain and help you to be more compassionate towards yourself? If not, repeat these steps as needed until you have found the correct ingredients and steps that will lead you to peace, joy, and a sense of intrinsic self-worth.
This process will not only help you to love yourself, it will also affect every area of your life. When you show yourself love and compassion, your relationships, your work, and your health will all reflect this positive energy.
If this process calls to you and you’d like to learn more, Paul links to a free online Inner Bonding Course.
How to Love and Accept Others
Fortunately, loving others is generally not as difficult, confusing, or complex as loving ourselves! However, it can still be challenging to love others in a productive and compassionate way.
There are many resources out there to help you learn how to love and accept others. In some cases, it’s as simple as taking the suggestions for loving yourself and applying them to others. However, some are simply not applicable to others as they are to ourselves.
So, how do you go about loving the people who are most important to you?
Four distinct methods for loving others include:
- Appreciating others
- Interacting with others
- Showing integrity, and
- Forgiving people for past hurt
These four methods, outlined in this Loving Others, Better handout, are not mutually exclusive. You can take bits and pieces from each method, use one to a much greater degree than others, or ignore one or two methods that just aren’t your style.
For example, appreciating others entails:
- Setting time aside to bond with people who matter to you
- Valuing people for their actions, and showing your gratitude
- Accepting others as they are, without judgment or criticism.
- Ignoring others’ small mistakes and letting things go more often.
Among other things, interacting with others can involve:
- Opening yourself up to more kindness and affection, for example kissing, hugging, receiving compliments, or expressing gratitude.
- Using words, and not just actions, to demonstrate your love. Help other people feel comfortable about demonstrating their feelings to you, in turn.
- Setting time aside for your loved ones, whether it’s emotional or practical support that they require.
Some ways to show integrity are:
- Telling the truth with friends, family, and romantic partners.
- Keeping your word, upholding your promises, and respecting commitments that you make,
- Being honest with yourself, being who you are, and living in line with your values.
Finally, forgiving people involves:
- Practicing self-forgiveness before all — Self-forgiveness is essential before we can forgive other people and recover from pain,
- Showing your feelings. If you are feeling hurt, find a sensitive way to express your pain.
It may seem unfamiliar to refer to a resource for something that is as basic to our human experience as loving others, but don’t close yourself off to good ideas from unusual places. These are all solid suggestions that you can implement to learn to love others more deeply and more effectively.
Love as patience
Use patience to express your love to others. Instead of focusing on other things, getting sidetracked by perfectionism, or becoming impatient when your loved ones do not meet your expectations, practice patience.
Patience empowers you to enjoy the journey of life instead of rushing through your life to get to the end (Almeida, n.d.).
Practicing patience will not only attract friendships and opportunities to you, it will make you a better friend, romantic partner, and all-around person (Schnitker & Emmons, 2007). Instead of focusing on the future, patience will keep you rooted in the present and enjoying your life as it happens.
Love as kindness
Acts of kindness are among some of the most powerful actions we can take. Seemingly small acts of kindness are remembered years or even decades after they are experienced.
In his blog post, professional mentor Joel Almeida (n.d.) notes that kindness is like a swiftly flowing river, with a calm surface “even as it grinds the rough edges off rocks.” It can lubricate the tense interactions between people, soothe during times of turbulence, and wear down even the grouchiest of people.
Use kindness to show others that you love and appreciate them, and you will find your life illuminated with positivity. Avoid any urges to react with rudeness, criticism, anger, or resentment, and commit to kindness instead.
Love as delight in others’ successes
A key component of love is finding joy in the success of others. It is easy to lose yourself in envy of those with more money, a more attractive physique, or a larger bevy of friends, but this leads to nothing but negative outcomes.
Instead of coveting what others have or resenting their success, dedicate yourself to sharing in the journey of life with those you love – in their joy and success as well as their pain and failure.
Like patience, cultivating a sense of delight in others’ achievements will not only attract others to you like a moth to a flame, but make you a better friend to others.
If you’re having trouble finding joy in the success of those around you, spend some time developing a better sense of your own uniqueness and your core values. A strong sense of self and compassion for the self will enhance your ability to enjoy the successes of others.
Love as humility
A sure way to ensure that other people do not enjoy your company is to brag, boast, and bolster yourself up at the expense of others.
However, practicing humility will make spending time with you a positive experience for those you love instead of a trial they must endure.
We often brag or boast to enhance our sense of self, because we feel inadequate, insecure, or ashamed of ourselves. However, it is a double-edged sword. While you may feel better temporarily, you’re only feeling better in comparison to others, meaning that you are also necessarily on the inferior side of the comparison at times.
When we are quick to admit our faults and acknowledge our imperfections, others see us more favorably. Showing humility shows others that we respect each individual on the basis of their intrinsic worth, rather than on an arbitrary or superficial basis (Tangney, 2000; 2009).
Be humble, and you will find it easier to love others as well as yourself.
Love as empathy
Perhaps the most powerful way to love others is to practice empathy. To truly love another, we must be able to put ourselves in their shoes. If we cannot put ourselves in another’s shoes, we cannot truly understand and appreciate them for who they are.
Practicing empathy opens us up to a greater love for others (and ourselves!) than we previously thought possible, and draws others to the warmth and light that our empathy gives off.
Show others you love them by empathizing with them. Even if you don’t necessarily know everything they are dealing with nor approve of the actions they have taken, make an effort to understand and empathize with where they are in the moment. You won’t regret it!
Indeed, love is not something that “just happens,” but a force that must be developed, cultivated, and maintained. It might take some work, but the outcome of this work is a happy, healthy, and accepting self that encourages others to be happy, healthy, and accepting.
However you choose to show love, the important thing is to express love regularly and authentically. Loving others will not only benefit those who receive love, it will also transform the one giving love.
A Take-Home Message
I hope you have found this piece to be a useful exploration of compassion, acceptance, and love for the self, as well as others.
One of the most important things we can do to live better, happier lives is to practice compassion – both for ourselves and for others (including those we love, those we hate, and those we don’t even know). However difficult it is to start on a journey toward self-acceptance, self-love, and self-compassion, remember that the outcomes are well worth the time you will invest in this journey.
What do you think about how to develop self-compassion? Do any of these self-compassion exercises look especially helpful? What do you do to show yourself compassion? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading, and remember to be kind to yourself!
For further reading, please see:
- How to Practice Self-Compassion: 8 Techniques and Tips
- 15 Most Interesting Self-Compassion Research Findings
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Self Compassion Exercises for free.
- Almeida, J. (n.d.). 5 ways to show your love to others (and yourself). Tiny Buddha. Retrieved from https://tinybuddha.com/blog/5-ways-show-love-others-yourself/
- Neff, K. (n.d.). Self-compassion guided meditations and exercises. Retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises
- Page, K. (2015). Deeper dating: How to drop the games of seduction and discover the power of intimacy. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
- Paul, M. (2014, September 18). How do you actually learn to love yourself? Mind Body Green. Retrieved from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-15295/how-do-you-actually-learn-to-love-yourself.html
- Schnitker, S. A., & Emmons, R. A. (2007). Patience as a virtue: Religious and psychological perspectives. In R. L. Piedmont (Ed.) Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion (Vol. 18, pp. 177-207). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
- Tangney, J. P. (2000). Humility: Theoretical perspectives, empirical findings and directions for future research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(1), 70-82.
- Tangney, J. P. (2009). Humility. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 483–490). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.