by Kristin Neff, PhD, and Christopher Germer, PhD.

Pain in life—loss, worry, heartbreak, hardship—is inevitable, but when we resist the pain, it usually just makes the pain more intense. It’s this add-on pain that can be equated with suffering. We suffer not only because it’s painful in the moment, but because we bang our head against the wall of reality—getting frustrated because we think things should be other than they are.

Another common form of resistance is denial. We hope that if we don’t think about a problem, it will go away. Research shows that when we try to suppress our unwanted thoughts or feelings, however, they just get stronger. Moreover, when we avoid or suppress painful thoughts and emotions, we can’t see them clearly and respond with compassion.

Mindfulness and self-compassion are resources that give us the safety needed to meet difficult experience with less resistance. Just imagine how you would feel if you were overwhelmed and a friend walked into the room, gave you a hug, sat down beside you, listened to your distress, and then helped you work out a plan of action. Thankfully, that mindful and compassionate friend can be you. It begins by opening to what is, without resistance.

After practicing speaking to herself compassionately for some months, Rafaella learned to hold herself and her anxiety with mindfulness and compassion, rather than fighting the experience. When she became anxious or even a little panicky, her inner dialogue went something like this, spoken from a compassionate part of herself: “I know you feel really scared right now. I wish things weren’t so difficult, but they are. I know there is tightening in your throat and some dizziness in your head. Still, I care for you and I’m here for you. You are not alone. We’ll get through this.” With a new, more compassionate inner voice, Rafaella’s panic attacks receded and she found she was much more capable of working with her anxiety than she had realized.

In a moment of struggle, we don’t practice to be free of our pain—we practice compassion because sometimes it’s hard to be a human being. Radical acceptance is like a parent comforting a child who has the 48-hour flu. The parent doesn’t care for the child to try to drive the flu away—the flu is going to leave in its own time. But because the child has a fever and feels bad, the parent comforts her as a natural response to suffering while the process of healing occurs. It’s like this when we try to comfort ourselves, too. When we fully accept the reality that we are imperfect human beings, prone to make mistakes and struggle, our hearts naturally begin to soften. We still feel pain, but we also feel the love holding the pain, and it’s more bearable.

Together, mindfulness and self-compassion form a state of warmhearted, connected presence that strengthens us during difficult moments in our lives. 

Practicing Imperfection

Whenever you find yourself using self-compassion to try to make the pain go away or to become a “better person,” try shifting your focus away from this subtle form of resistance and practice compassion simply because we’re all imperfect human beings, living imperfect lives. And life is hard. In other words, practice being a “compassionate mess.”

By simply asking the question “What do I need now?” you allow yourself a moment of self-compassion, even if you can’t find an answer or don’t have the ability to meet your needs at the time.

Write a Letter to Yourself

You can find your compassionate voice by writing a letter to yourself whenever you struggle or feel inadequate or when you want to help motivate yourself to make a change. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but gets easier with practice.

Here are three formats to try:

  1. Think of an imaginary friend who is unconditionally wise, loving, and compassionate and write a letter to yourself from the perspective of your friend.
  2. Write a letter as if you were talking to a dearly beloved friend who was struggling with the same concerns as you.
  3.  Write a letter from the compassionate part of yourself to the part of yourself that is struggling.

After writing the letter, you can put it down for a while and then read it later, letting the words soothe and comfort you when you need it most.

Keywords; mindfulness, kindness

Excerpted from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff, PhD, and Christopher Germer, PhD. © 2018 Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer.