3 Keys to Cultivating Self-Compassion

Developing compassion benefits your relationships, your business, and your own sense of well-being.

members of a group counseling workshop talk and laugh together

Updated on April 4, 2022.

One of the most important practices when developing compassion is also one that is often overlooked: cultivating compassion for yourself. This has a couple of dimensions.

One dimension is about self-talk, or how you talk to yourself, making sure you are kind and forgiving to yourself as opposed to being a negative critic who is always putting yourself down. The other dimension is the concept of putting yourself first in the sense of really committing to taking care of yourself. This includes structuring your life and priorities to optimize your health as well as to allow yourself joy and pleasure in your life.

Celeste Aliberti is a trained clinical social worker and psychotherapist who infuses her client interactions with a dimension of compassion and mindfulness. She explains self-compassion in this way:

“It’s really about having a loving relationship with yourself. This means at every moment you’re treating yourself with love and respect in the same way that you would treat someone else who you love.”

Here are three keys to developing a sense of self-compassion that I have learned in the course of interviewing a variety of leaders and experts in the field.

Check your inner dialogue

Treating yourself in a loving way sounds simple enough, but it’s not always easy. Even today I’ll still catch myself saying unloving things to myself, but I quickly stop and change them to kinder sentiments.

Celeste describes some common situations in the workplace where we sabotage ourselves with negative self-talk.

“Many people judge themselves, put themselves down, rather than being patient or forgiving,” she says. “The key is to be mindful of this and to change the dialogue. When critical words enter your mind—things like, ‘I didn’t do a very good job in that meeting,’ or, ‘I’m terrible at this or that’—that’s when it’s time to bring in love.”

“When you feel this kind of dialogue starting,” she advises, “step back and think about talking to yourself with kindness and patience, as if you were talking to a much younger version of yourself or talking to a child. Then say more compassionate things to yourself, such as, ‘It’s okay, you’re doing your best and that’s probably better than you’re giving yourself credit for.’”

“It’s not always easy to change this,” Celeste notes. “It takes some time because it often becomes an embedded pattern. Positive self-talk is not something most of us are taught. We’re taught at a young age—as kids—to be good little consumers, to always look outside ourselves for external or material sources of comfort or gratification. Our whole culture is programmed this way. We aren’t taught to look inside ourselves for the answers, but that’s where we’ll find them.”

What is the outcome of changing our internal dialogue?

“Self-compassion leads to empowerment,” Celeste says. “It leads to allowing your creativity to flourish. When you put yourself down, your creativity and confidence are smashed. When you develop a loving relationship with yourself, all aspects of yourself are empowered and uplifted! You are working for yourself, for your own growth and joy.”

Prioritize yourself

Getting self-talk to a forgiving and kind place will take you far, and it really does happen with practice. The other dimension of self-compassion that has actually been a little hard for me is making myself a priority. Even though I’ve worked extremely hard in my career, I still feel a little guilty about enjoying the fruits of my labor. Now that I’ve gotten the hang of it, though, I realize it’s an expression of self-compassion and self-care.

Thasunda Brown Duckett is the president and CEO of TIAA, a Fortune 100 financial services company that develops retirement plans for people who work in government, higher education, health care, and nonprofits. When I spoke with her, she explained what self-compassion and self-care mean to her.

“Many times you’re watering everyone else’s flowers,” Thasunda says, “and not realizing that you’re thirsty for the same thing. So what I’ve learned is that I had to take a moment, give myself permission, and to realize that it wasn’t selfish, it wasn’t arrogant. It was allowing me to refuel so that I can make more impact, because when I am overtaxed, when I am pouring and pouring, I am not replenishing. Then, I cannot make the impact.”

“So what I do now is a couple of things. I protect my soul and my spirit. I surround myself with people who mean me well. I make sure I’m kind to myself by taking time to smell the roses and being grateful for the work I have accomplished. Self-care is about knowing what brings you joy and allowing yourself to do those things.”

I think one of the kindest things Thasunda described doing for herself was giving herself permission to stop trying to balance her life and work. So many of us beat ourselves up for working too much if we aren’t spending enough time with our loved ones, or conversely, we kick ourselves for taking time off with our loved ones when we should be working. It’s a no-win situation that is brutal on you.

Thasunda’s approach is incredibly kind and empowering.

She explains: “I choose to live my life like a diversified portfolio. I don’t believe in work-life balance anymore. I realized that when I was trying to balance my life, I was failing at everything. I felt like I was failing at motherhood, I was not feeling great about work, I was feeling guilty that I don’t do enough for my parents, I felt I was not connected to my friends as much as I would have liked.”

“So, I intentionally took the time to write down everything that matters to me—being a philanthropist, being a mother, being a daughter, being a friend, being an executive, etc. Then I allocated a percentage of time to each. I don’t have 110 percent; I only have 100 percent. For everything that matters to me, I would allocate at least one percent.”

“What it allowed me to do is to have permission to not live my life in judgment and failure,” she says. “When I’m working these long hours, I understand that it’s earnings season, so I need to weight my allocation toward work. But it also gave me permission to recalibrate, just like you do with your money in the markets.”

“When my dad was battling prostate cancer, I needed to reallocate more of my time and show up as a daughter to remind him of all the things he taught me, to play it back to him when he was at his weakest moment,” she says. “I know that I may not be the best mom when I’m traveling. But over time, I’m a really good mom. I don’t put 100 percent into my marriage and my children, maybe they’re at 30 percent, but within that 30 percent I give 100 percent. I give it all that I have. And that allows me to show up with joy; it allows me to be intentional.”

Make self-compassion a daily practice

My practices of cultivating compassion can include a few things: self-reflection, prayer, meditation, and mindfulness. These methods are used to cultivate more empathy and compassion through clearing your mind of racing thoughts in a way that allows you to connect with your own heart and soul. These practices open up our hearts and create more awareness of what people around us are going through.

These practices are some of the most widely used to develop a personal practice of cultivating compassion. There’s a big bonus to these, too: They reduce stress, in addition to their many other benefits. We all know stress is a literal killer and often operates on overdrive for leaders at any level. Meditation and mindfulness practice is one of the most powerful ways for an individual to stay grounded and stave off the effects of stress. This is also powerful in developing self-compassion, awareness, empathy, and compassion for others.

Start with yourself

Compassion begins within each of us. Many would say that compassion is something we’re born with, though some may have more of a predisposition toward it than others. As we live our lives, compassion may grow and deepen, or perhaps for many of us it might go a bit dormant as we face difficulties and become caught up in our busy lives.

Wherever we are on our journey, there is always opportunity to cultivate deeper compassion and to embrace this as a practice at any point in our lives.

Donato Tramuto is a global health activist, former CEO of Tivity Health, founder of the TramutoPorter Foundation and Health eVillages, and an executive in residence at Sharecare. He was the recipient of the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award in 2014, alongside Hillary Clinton, Robert De Niro, and Tony Bennett, and the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Embracing His Legacy Award.

This excerpt of The Double Bottom Line is presented with permission from the author and Fast Company Press. For more information or to order a copy, please visit Bookshop.orgAmazon, or Barnes & Noble.

Article sources open article sources

Donato Tramuto with Tami Booth Corwin. The Double Bottom Line: How Compassionate Leaders Captivate Hearts And Deliver Results. Fast Company Press. Copyright © 2022 Tramuto Foundation.

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