Some challenges are more complicated than just sprinting to the finish line.
It’s easy to blame yourself when the road is long or the path is confusing. But the truth is, making it through hard times—really hard times—is hardly ever a singular event.
It’s a journey.
The process itself changes you, and often your greatest accomplishment is not the goal you set out to achieve, but how you grow through the experience.
In those most challenging circumstances, when your endurance is stretched and your determination is tested, progress comes step by step. Sometimes it feels like it isn’t coming at all.
It is those times that you most need a friend.
You don’t need a friend to solve your problem (as if they could). You don’t need to be told what to do or how to feel, or to hear easy answers.
You do need someone to be present with you. To witness your pain. To see your struggle, and to love you in spite of it. You want them to trust you and your journey and believe in your process of healing.
To hold space.
I hope you have that kind of friend in your life right now. But whether or not you do, it’s time to start becoming that person for yourself.
Why Holding Space for Yourself Matters
Doing hard things doesn’t mean you have to be hard on yourself.
Many people believe that they will accomplish more if they keep up a steady stream of self-criticism and heavy internal demands. That’s a myth.
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, beating yourself up isn’t the great motivator many people think it is. Those who are harshest with themselves have less confidence and more anxiety and depression. They are more afraid of failure, less willing to challenge themselves, and less honest with themselves about the areas they need to improve.
On the other hand, people who show more self-compassion are more resilient, more likely to stick with their goals in the face of setback or discouragement, and more likely to reach their potential. They are also better able to take responsibility for their mistakes, to learn from them, and to bounce back.
Which group would you rather be in?
Life’s ups and downs can be grueling. Everyone has periods of feeling overwhelmed, afraid, and even broken. When things get tough for you, you will get through more easily and successfully by showing self-compassion.
Research-Based Techniques for Self-Compassion
Your inner critic is likely to kick into high gear during times of stress. According to Dr. Chris Germer, the fight, flight or freeze response we are all familiar with in response to an external threat has an internal version that shows up when we are threatened by strong emotions.
The fight instinct turned inward becomes self-criticism and blame.
The flight instinct turned inward becomes self-isolation, numbing, or distraction.
The freeze instinct turned inward become rumination and getting stuck in negative thoughts.
Physical and mental healing don’t take place when you are fight, flight, or freeze mode. Healing gets put on hold until the crisis has passed.
Self-compassion is a key to calming your nervous system and shifting out of flight, flight or freeze.
Dr Neff and Dr. Germer suggest interrupting fight, flight, or freeze mode by taking a self-compassion break. A self-compassion break has three parts: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
- Mindfulness: Be present with the reactions in your body and mind instead of trying to hide from them. Noticing when a stress response begins and putting words to it helps to defuse some of its power. You don’t have to pressure yourself to stop the stress reaction. Just detach enough that the observer part of yourself can note what is happening. You might say to yourself, “This is a tough moment,” “This hurts,” or “This is a moment of difficulty.”
- Common Humanity: Feeling alone in suffering makes it more difficult. A sense of isolation leads to feelings of shame and can prevent healing. Take a moment to remind yourself that tough times are normal part of the human experience, and you can get through this.
- Self-kindness: Take action to nurture yourself. Neff and Germer suggest combining touch and words. For example, you could put a hand over your heart and say, “May I give myself what I need. May I be kind to myself.
Self-compassion is a practice that can continue beyond moments of insight and redirection and become part of your lifestyle. Here are some practical ideas of what that can look like.
Practical Ideas for Self-Compassion
- Write yourself a letter: Write a letter letting yourself know what an amazing job you have been doing, how proud you are of your efforts, and how much you believe in yourself. Make sure to acknowledge the things no one else sees, and to thank yourself for your courage.
- Nurture your creativity: When you feel buried by should and ought to, it helps to make space for creativity. Write, paint, draw, or play music. Or go to the park and get playful: build the sandbox or swing on the swings. Moving outside your usual routine and expectations can help you feel energized and inspired.
- Nurture your body: Overwhelm and worry happen in your head. It can help get back into your body. Dance, exercise, and travel can all be helpful. It can also help to find ways to connect to and nurture your five senses: light a candle or diffuse essential oils, take a warm shower or bath, find a great lotion or body wash, choose soft blankets or clothing, listen to music or other soothing sounds.
- Spend time in nature: Nature heals. Research says spending time surrounded by trees or water will lower your stress levels. Allowing yourself time in nature can help you feel renewed and ready to face your challenges.
- Speak kindly: Many people speak much more harshly to themselves than to others. Research says positivity is a better motivator than harshness. Try cutting back on the words always and never (You never to this! You always do that!) They are rarely true, and they set a negative tone. Ditto for the word should. It feels different to remind yourself that you could do something than to scold yourself that you should.
As you build patterns of self-compassion, you will transform the way you feel about yourself, and by extension everyone and everything around you as well.
What Self-Compassion Feels Like
Self-compassion feels like accepting yourself with honesty and kindness.
It feels like being safe enough within yourself to be open about your questions and struggles.
It feels like honoring the rate your body, mind and heart are able to progress, and giving yourself the support you need in order to do that.
It feels like forgiving yourself when you make mistakes, and giving yourself space to be human.
It feels like noticing the areas you struggle, exploring them with gentleness and curiosity, and making adjustments where needed.
Self-compassion feels like knowing when you need to slow down and when it’s time to push harder, because you have listened carefully to what you have to say.
It feels like trusting yourself enough to take risks.
It feels like being brave enough to do hard things, even when you’re afraid.
It feels like knowing, deep down, that you’ve got this, and trusting yourself to keep trying.
Self-compassion feels like becoming the person you can count on to get yourself through the toughest times. It’s encountering your own strength, grace, and determination right in the middle of your very human imperfections.
And it’s realizing that maybe part of the point was for you to become that friend to yourself. And that it was worth it.