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Be Kind and Loving to Yourself — It’s Good for You

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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  • Self-acceptance is an important part of psychological health and involves accepting all of your attributes, both positive and negative
  • Self-acceptance includes three main attitudes, including love for your body, the ability to protect yourself from other’s negative judgements and appreciating your own capabilities and believing in yourself
  • When you’re in a self-compassionate frame of mind, you soothe and comfort yourself in times of need; you do not regard yourself in a harsh, critical or judgmental way, or take a “stiff upper lip” approach when you’re suffering
  • Self-compassion has been found to moderate the link between perfectionism and depression, such that learning to be kind to yourself could eliminate much of the negative effects associated with perfectionism
  • Increase your self-compassion by using self-compassion based meditation, daily self-compassion journaling and taking note of your critical inner voice — and changing it to sound like it would if you were speaking to a close friend

In the video above, Julie Schiffman demonstrates a simple technique to help you love and accept yourself — something most of us can benefit from. Schiffman is a practitioner of the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which is a form of psychological acupressure that involves tapping with the fingertips on specific meridians in order to clear negative emotions and thought patterns.

This is but one way to bring more self-love into your life, akin to giving your inner critic a giant bear hug. The fact is, many of us engage in negative self-talk and are overly critical of ourselves, which can set the stage for mental and even physical health problems.

Turning your low levels of self-acceptance around, and taking the time to be compassionate and gentle toward yourself, is essential to being happy and healthy — and it all starts with you.

Low Self-Acceptance Can Damage Your Health

Self-acceptance is an important part of psychological health and involves accepting all of your attributes, both positive and negative. "Self-acceptance enables an individual to appropriately evaluate his/her efficient and inefficient features and accept any negative aspects as parts of their personality," researchers wrote in the journal PLOS One.1

Self-acceptance includes three main attitudes, including love for your body, even if you're not completely satisfied with your weight, fitness level or any other physical attribute. It also involves the ability to protect yourself from others' negative judgments, such that you don't let it phase you if other people judge you.

Self-acceptance also involves recognizing and appreciating your own capabilities and believing in yourself. People who have high levels of self-acceptance tend to also have higher levels of self-esteem and interpersonal satisfaction. They're also less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, eating disorders and obesity.2

If you have a disability or chronic illness, self-acceptance may be particularly important and can help facilitate healing and better coping, while helping you engage in healthy behaviors to support your well-being.

"Lack of self-acceptance is characterized by feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, depression, self-blame and self-hatred, which block motivation, inhibit positive behaviors and cause difficulties in rehabilitation and adjustment," the researchers continued.3

For instance, in people with rheumatoid arthritis, those who displayed unconditional self-acceptance were less likely to have anxiety and automatic negative thoughts, improving quality of life.4

Striving for Perfectionism Can Be Dangerous

Part of accepting yourself involves recognizing your strengths and accepting your weaknesses. This does not mean, however, that you should strive for perfectionism, which is linked with psychological distress and depression.5 Feeling a self-generated pressure to be perfect is even believed to be part of the personality of people prone to suicide ideation and attempts.6

"A primary mechanism underpinning the development and maintenance of depression is perfectionism," researchers wrote in PLOS One. "Perfectionistic trepidations, particularly those shaped by social influences such as perceived demands of perfection from others and concern over mistakes, may potentially exacerbate daily stresses and create a vulnerability toward depression."7

While simply striving to achieve a high standard isn't a bad thing (and can even have positive outcomes), when that striving is combined with self-criticism and concern over making mistakes or how other people perceive you, problems arise. In addition to depression, perfectionism has also been linked to eating disorders, anxiety and schizophrenia.8

What's interesting to note, though, is that self-compassion has been found to moderate the link between perfectionism and depression, such that learning to be kind to yourself could eliminate much of the negative effects associated with perfectionism.9

"Self-compassion is 'a useful emotion regulation strategy, in which painful or distressing feelings are not avoided but are instead held in awareness with kindness, understanding and a sense of shared humanity,'" Kristin Neff, Ph.D., an associate professor with the University of Texas at Austin's department of educational psychology, explained.10

For example, perfectionism is believing you've failed if you made a mistake. But viewed under the lens of self-compassion, a mistake is something everyone has experienced and is something you can build upon and learn from.

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Why High Self-Compassion Is Healthier Than High Self-Esteem

Learning to be kind and loving to yourself, i.e., having self-compassion, is not the same as having high self-esteem and may, in fact, be preferable to it. While high self-esteem is also associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety, it can have some downsides, including being correlated with narcissism. According to Neff:11

"Self-esteem is … associated with the better-than-average effect, the need to feel superior to others just to feel OK about oneself. Research shows that most people think they are funnier, more logical, more popular, better looking, nicer, more trustworthy, wiser and more intelligent than others.

To be average is unacceptable in Western society, so pretty much everyone walks around wearing rose-colored glasses (at least when they are looking in the mirror). This comparative dynamic, however, the tendency to puff ourselves up and put others down, creates interpersonal distance and separation that undermines connectedness."

And although low self-esteem is linked to health problems of its own, having high self-esteem does not lead to gains in academic or job performance, improve leadership skills or decrease risky behaviors in children the way you might expect.

A better option, research by Neff and colleagues suggests, is self-compassion. "In general, the research suggests that self-compassion offers most of the benefits of high self-esteem, with fewer downsides."12

The Three Components of Self-Compassion

Eastern philosophies have embraced the idea of self-compassion since ancient times, even if it's a relatively new concept in the U.S. Using the writings of Buddhist scholars, Neff defined self-compassion as having three primary components, as follows:13

  • Self-kindness versus self-judgment — When you're in a self-compassionate frame of mind, you soothe and comfort yourself in times of need; you do not regard yourself in a harsh, critical or judgmental way, or take a "stiff upper lip" approach when you're suffering.
  • Common humanity versus isolation — This allows you to understand that being human is to be imperfect and failing and making mistakes is common to humanity. This gives you a broader perspective when evaluating your own shortcomings.
  • Mindfulness versus overidentification — Being mindful means being present in the current moment and accepting it at face value, not giving too much weight to negative thoughts or experiences (but not ignoring them either).

Self-compassion should exist not only when you're in the midst of difficult or painful life circumstances but also, and perhaps most importantly, when "suffering stems from one's own foolish actions, failures or personal inadequacies," Neff said.14 Even in extremely stressful times, such as during divorce, self-compassion can act as a buffer to your emotional health and recovery.

People who had higher levels of self-compassion at the beginning of a study were less negatively affected emotionally by the divorce on a daily basis.15 Even among college students, taking a short two-week self-compassion course led to gains in healthy impulse control and self-growth and decreases in self-judgment, habitual negative self-directed thinking, anxiety and depression.16

Self-Compassion in Practice

Self-compassion sounds good in theory, but how do you do it in practice? EFT as mentioned, can be used to enhance self-love and acceptance. Self-compassion based meditation, including loving-kindness meditation (LKM) and compassion meditation (CM), is also helpful and can help you enhance your positive emotional state.

Both LKM and CM, which are often performed together, have been found to activate brain areas involved in emotional processing and empathy.17 You can take a guided course or try it yourself. Neff offers guided self-compassion meditations on her website that you can follow along with at home to get started.18

She also recommends a number of self-compassion exercises, such as keeping a daily self-compassion journal, in which you write down instances where you judged yourself or felt ashamed or bad about yourself. Next, connect those feelings to all of humanity by writing how other people have likely experienced similar feelings and circumstances.

Finally, practice self-kindness by writing words of understanding and comfort. Another self-compassion exercise involves writing a letter to yourself about your imperfections and feelings of inadequacy. Next, write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, then go back and read it at a later time.

"After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back and read it again, really letting the words sink in," Neff says. "Feel the compassion as it pours into you, soothing and comforting you like a cool breeze on a hot day. Love, connection and acceptance are your birthright. To claim them you need only look within yourself."19

Notice — and Change — Your Critical Inner Voice

Another strategy for being kind to yourself is making a point to think about your inner voice. Is it negative? Positive? Supportive? Critical? Try to rephrase negative thoughts into gentler ones, and think what your thoughts would sound like if they were told to you by a supportive friend. Try to avoid ruminating on your negative feelings and do not identify with them, but also do not ignore them.

By embracing your negative thoughts, you can begin to soften their blow and experience them without self-criticism. If you begin to feel overwhelmed or anxious that you're not progressing fast enough, remember to be kind to yourself about learning to have more self-compassion. Neff explained:20

"And if we ever feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions, the most self-compassionate response may be to pull back temporarily — focus on the breath, the sensation of the soles of our feet on the ground, or engage in ordinary, behavioral acts of self-care such as having a cup of tea or petting the cat.

By doing so we reinforce the habit of self-compassion — giving ourselves what we need in the moment — planting seeds that will eventually blossom and grow."

Sometimes, being kind to yourself may be as simple as getting a massage or indulging yourself with a good book. Other times, you may need to redirect your inner voice to sound the way you would treat a good friend. Be at least as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend or even a stranger, and make a point to notice when you're being unkind to yourself, as this is the first step to turning it around.

While this may feel strange at first, the more you practice being compassionate to yourself, the easier the habit will become. If you're unsure where you fall on the self-compassion scale, the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion has a self-compassion test you can take to reveal whether you're low, moderate or high in self-compassion.21

Self-Compassion Is Not the Same as Self-Pity or Self-Indulgence

Most people will benefit greatly from practicing greater kindness and love toward themselves, but there is one important caveat: Please do not confuse self-compassion with self-pity or self-indulgence.

Self-pity allows you to become wrapped up in your negative emotions and can be an isolating experience. Self-indulgence, such as eating a hot fudge sundae and lounging on the couch, is often confused with self-compassion as well, but there are distinct differences.

"Remember that being compassionate to oneself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term," notes the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.

"In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, overeating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising)."22 So be mindful that in treating yourself gently and with kindness, you still make positive choices to facilitate good health and well-being.