Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it is hard work to be a human.
And in the midst of that hard work, adding “self-love” can feel like a vague, inaccessible, or unimportant concept. I’ve sometimes found myself thinking, “I’ll figure out how to be kinder to myself after I figure out the other important things in my life…my relationships, school, job…” However, when I think about self-love as a practice rather than a goal, I discover that there are small things I can do that shift the way my mind and heart function. With self-love as a foundation, I feel a bit more at ease in other dimensions of my life. I believe the practice of self-love is hard and brave work, and work worth doing.
When thinking about this topic, I often prefer the term “self-compassion” because it implies action. Compassion is about tending to suffering. When you practice self-compassion, you are creating space within you for all the messiness of being human. Self-compassion is a practice of acknowledging yourself with kindness and appreciation in spite of—or even with—the parts of yourself you may not like, be proud of, or feel comfortable with. It means appreciating yourself, just as you would someone else you care about, for all the ways you are resilient in the face of really hard things: difficult immigration stories, trauma or abuse, challenging relationship with parents, or failing a class.
Self-compassion can lift your spirits and offer strength while living in a world where white supremacy, (cis)sexism, heteronormativity and other systems of oppression take from your right to experience love and kindness. Sometimes, it’s hard to recognize the effects that living within these systems has. Self-compassion is a way to see those effects and be gentle with yourself. It is a necessary ingredient in efforts toward social and systemic change.
To help you see how self-compassion can fit into your life, here are 6 specific, concrete ways to practice it. Some of them may not feel right to you, and that’s ok. Use the ways that work for you, and build from there.
1. Ask yourself what self-compassion means to you
There’s a lot of room to create your own definition of self-compassion. What comes to mind when you hear “self-compassion”? What gets in the way of loving yourself? How do you talk to yourself when you make a mistake? Consider writing down your answers to help think it through.
Keep in mind that accepting yourself as you are does NOT mean that you stop growing as a person. In my experience, it actually means the opposite. Self-compassion can open up your potential and give you a foundation to try new things, live life with humor, and be the friend and partner you want to be.
2. Think about how love FEELS
Think of someone or something that is easy to feel love toward. This could be an animal, a child, a public figure, or someone who is there for you unconditionally. Notice how thinking about this person feels in your body.
Now, think of what it feels like when that thing or person does something to upset you. How would you react? How would you feel? Chances are, you wouldn’t write them off as “bad,” but would ultimately respond with love and compassion. Remember: you are worthy of that same compassionate response. Try to hold onto that feeling for the next time you make a mistake.
3. Identify a place you feel connected to yourself
Think of a place, person or activity that makes you at ease, where you can really explore what it means to be yourself without fear of judgment. For some, it’s hard to access a place like that in “real life.” Imaginary places work, too! What does it feel like to be in that space? Is there a way that you can recreate those feelings in other ways, or spend more time in that space?
4. Perform an act of radical self-care
This can be choosing to not indulge in a conversation that you know will leave you drained. It can be setting boundaries in relationships. It can mean journaling or talking with someone you trust about all the shadowy, dark things that feel hard to keep inside. For me, it’s lying on the floor to let my body rest for a few minutes. We talk more about how to practice self-care here.
5. Challenge negative self-talk
A lot of times, we learn how to talk to ourselves based on how people talk to us. Sometimes it’s doubly painful to recognize that our negative self-talk stems from others speaking to us in hurtful ways. AND, this means that we can also unlearn unhelpful, overly critical self-talk.
Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. What do you say in your inner monologue? How would you describe your words? Are they harsh, smooth, critical, confusing? Would you talk to someone you loved that way? The next time you find yourself talking badly about yourself, notice that thought and name it. Our brains are wired to emphasize the “negative” more than “positive” as a survival instinct. But our brains are also changeable. Through the practices listed here we can actually shift our automatic reactions to things that stir up negative self-talk.
6. Try a gesture of self-kindness
Below are some options for creating a physical gesture of self-kindness. These gestures are ways to physically comfort yourself. They can have a real and powerful effect on your body.
- Pause and let yourself “just be” in a quiet space for a moment.
- Place one or both hands firmly over your heart and hold them there for a moment. Pay attention to how your heartbeat and the pressure on your chest feel.
- Lie down and place a hand on your belly. Feel it rise and fall as you breathe.
- Place your hands gently over your eyes—sense the contact of your hands on your face.
Practicing self-compassion will probably feel easier some days than others. That’s completely normal and ok. It’s also completely normal to need or want support. If you’re having a hard time changing your negative self-talk or find it difficult to just spend time with yourself, consider talking to a therapist. They can help you develop tools to understand and handle what you’re going through. If you’re 10-22 years old and live in NYC, you can call (212) 423-3000 to make an appointment for free, confidential healthcare at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center.
Jaime L. Bedard, LCSW, C-IAYT is a licensed social worker, certified Integrated Movement Therapy® practitioner, and yoga instructor committed to providing compassionate, accessible, anti-oppressive support to survivors of complex trauma and those who care for them. She draws on contemplative practices and clinical training as the foundation for relating to others, particularly in her current work at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.