Always Too Hard on Yourself? Try These 5 Exercises

It can feel counterintuitive to show yourself the same compassion you show others. But it's vital to learn how to extend yourself some grace.

by Ashley Abramson
Originally Published: 
A man laying on the couch with his hand behind his head

If your child, partner, or close friend told you they were struggling with something, how would you respond? Odds are, you’d take the time to listen and find a way to show you care. Compassion, or the concern for other people’s misfortune, is an important part of any relationship — and if you’re close with someone, it’s fairly easy to do. So why does it feel so counterintuitive to show that same compassion to yourself when you need it?

Self-compassion is the ability to accept that you’re human — and accept all the feelings that come with said humanity, says Billy Roberts, an Ohio-based therapist. California-based therapist Kailey Hockridge adds that along with accepting your feelings, self-compassion allows you to recognize you’re allowed to mess up and you deserve understanding, just like anyone else.

That’s not always easy, especially if you’re subject to cultural expectations about what it means to be a cisgender, heterosexual male.

“Often there are expectations placed upon men that they need to tough it out, just work harder when things are difficult, or suck it up,” says Hockridge. These messages can make it hard to acknowledge when you’re struggling with something, and even more difficult to take care of yourself when that’s the case.

Lack of self-compassion can also cause you to engage in unhealthy behaviors to numb your uncomfortable feelings. If you don’t learn how to validate your emotions, then you’ll spend a lot of time fighting against them, which Roberts says can be both ineffective and self-destructive. This lack of self-awareness and vulnerability can also impact your mental health, your relationships, and even your success at work — all the more reason it’s so important to address.

Learning how to be gentle with yourself won’t happen overnight, but taking steps to get there can make a major difference in your well-being. Not sure where to start? Here are five therapist-recommended exercises to help you give yourself the compassion you deserve.

1. Challenge your self talk with a mantra

Negative thoughts about yourself can easily leave you feeling defeated—which in turn, makes it hard for you to feel deserving of self-compassion. Ashera DeRosa, a therapist in New York state, says it’s helpful to identify the negative beliefs you may have about yourself, then begin to dismantle them.

For example, maybe you believe your worth as a father is tied to your ability to be successful at work, which might be causing you to work long hours or miss out on key moments in your kid’s life. To dismantle this belief, try adopting a mantra that speaks to the truth about who you are. You could tell yourself, “Being present with my family is what makes me a good dad” every time you feel like you’re not good enough or you’re distracted by work.

Or, you can say the mantra out loud to yourself several times a day. Either way, DeRosa says engaging with this exercise consistently can help shape your thoughts and behavior.

2. Neutralize your negative thoughts

If you’re feeling down on yourself, the jump from self-deprecating thoughts to congratulatory ones might feel too big (and unrealistic). That’s why Hockridge’s favorite self-compassion exercise centers around neutrality. If you catch a negative or self-critical thought in your head, rather than trying to do a total 180 by giving yourself compliments, try neutralizing the negative language. For example, rather than saying “I’m an awful dad,” try “I’m just a dad.” It might not feel like a big shift, but with a bit of practice, you might find yourself better able to accept that you’re human, just like everyone else.

3. Picture yourself with another person

New York-based therapist Teresa Thompson suggests considering whether you’d react to someone you love the way that you’re reacting to yourself. “If you wouldn’t call them names, why are you letting negative self-talk and put downs run through your mind? If you would encourage them to focus more on their successes, why are you choosing to only focus on the places where you feel like you’ve failed?” she says. “Remembering the compassion we feel toward others can give us a roadmap to feeling that same understanding and care toward ourselves.”

4. Imagine yourself as a kid

Everyone messes up from time to time, and shame about your failures can keep you from healing. If you find yourself stuck in feelings of guilt or shame, Thompson suggests imagining yourself as a child experiencing those same emotions. Imagine as many details as you can: what age you are, what kind of clothes you liked to wear at the time, what environment you’d like to be in. How would you treat the little version of you if they came to you, upset about something? Chances are, you wouldn’t berate a child for being human and messing up.

“Picture yourself now as an adult sitting with that child, comforting them, even holding them as they cry,” says Thompson. “Let that radical sense of worthiness and compassion expand, so it can encompass the adult you are today.”

5. Ask yourself “What do I need?”

Once you get the hang of noticing and acknowledging your emotions, it’s important to reflect on how you can take care of yourself in moments when you’re struggling. Julia McGrath, a therapist in Philadelphia, suggests asking yourself a simple but essential question when you feel stress or other difficult emotions: “What do I need?”

Maybe you need to talk about how you’re feeling. Maybe you just need to eat lunch or take a quick nap. No matter what you identify, you’re on your way to incorporating self-compassion as a regular practice in your life. “By asking this question and acting on the answer, we build that sense of treating ourselves like we would a good friend,” she says.

If you’ve tried to cultivate self-compassion but you seem to be hitting a wall, well — that’s a great opportunity to show yourself even more compassion. Be patient with yourself, and don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you think there’s something bigger beneath the surface, like a history of trauma or a mental health condition. “It’s important to speak with a professional if struggling to be self-compassionate is interfering with your life,” says Roberts.

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