03/11/2011 01:14 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Self-Compassion 101: Rethinking the Golden Rule

Is it selfish to have compassion for yourself? On an airplane, you are asked to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, so that you can help other people. Self-compassion is like that too. If you don't take care of yourself first, you won't be fully equipped to help others.

Doing a sport you love, enjoying nature, exploring your creativity or connecting with others are all paths to self-compassion. But let's look under the surface. The "critic's voice" (the one that says "I'll never be good at that," or, "I look so bad today," or, "They probably think I'm a...") is within all of us, and it's sneaky! What to do? Here are seven easy ways to get started:

Be a Detective. Catch yourself if you are:

  • Comparing yourself to others and putting yourself down
  • Giving up on doing something because you feel it's hopeless
  • Worrying about what might happen in the future
  • Being a perfectionist

These do not promote self-compassion; rather, they give fuel to the "inner critic." By noticing your tendencies, and being mindful of the circumstances that trigger them, you can befriend your "inner critic" and get more of your life back.

How Your Brain Is Like Velcro. Dr. Rick Hansen says that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences (which attach themselves to our minds like Velcro), and it's like Teflon for positive experiences (which we allow to slide away from our focus.) We all tend to be biased toward the negative. For example, let's say a person gave a presentation to a group of 20, and 19 enjoyed it, but one complained. More often than not, the presenter would obsess about the one negative comment, rather than feel good about the 19 positive ones. By paying attention to the positive and savoring happy experiences, you can train your brain to attach itself to the good stuff in life. What we give our attention to grows!

Mindfulness: What Is That Feeling? Another thing to recognize is that how you are feeling is just that: a feeling. Imagine feelings are like images darting across a TV. They come and go, and change so rapidly. Feelings are not who you are. They don't define you; they flow through you. Yet, the mind loves to build on those feelings and create a story. The story could be, "They done me wrong -- again!" or, "I can't succeed because of..." or, "I just have no control in my life." We all have our favorites. The real test is to recognize in the moment that what is playing out is a story, a familiar pattern, a default reaction. The great news is that once you can observe the feelings (frustrated, sad, mad, etc.) and the stories that emerge from them, then you have more options.

Take Charge -- You Have a Choice. We're not talking about denying or shoving down your emotions, but rather about noticing them and consciously choosing how you want to react. The simple act of taking a few deep breaths gives you a chance to calm the body, reclaim the mind and look at things in a fresh way. It's what allows you to respond, rather than just react. It's easy: Observe the emotion. Experience it. Choose your response. You'll be amazed how good it feels!

Adjusting Your Mindset. It's interesting that even how you choose to interpret any given situation has influence. If someone looks at you curiously, do you think "What's wrong with me?" or, "They look like they're having a challenging day"? If you trip down the stairs do you say, "I'm such a klutz" or, "Glad I know where these are, so I'll watch for them next time"? How kind can you be to yourself?

The Art of Self-Compassion. Imagine if you decided that it's time to be kind to yourself. No, that does not mean wallow in self-indulgence or turn away from reality. It means understanding that you drive the car, so it has to be well maintained. Dr. Kelly McGonigal in her work at Stanford gives an example. Let's say you just received your third job rejection. You can either be self-critical ("I don't have what it takes and never will") or you can do something to make yourself feel better. Research has shown that if you write a letter about the upsetting situation to yourself, as if you were writing it to a friend caught in the same situation (or alternately, writing what a good friend would say to you), the soothing effect of doing this for one week lasted for six months. Dr. Kristin Neff reports higher levels of self-compassion are linked to more happiness, optimism, curiosity and connectedness, and less anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure. Worth a shot?

Rethinking the Golden Rule. It's time to take a fresh look at the Golden Rule. How about treat yourself as you would have others treat you? The end result will not only give you the oxygen you need, it will also equip you to be of help to the people around you. Self-compassion is not selfish at all; in fact, it's just the opposite.

Do you resist or practice self-compassion? How's that working for you?