Happiness Practice #6: Self-Compassionate Letter
This information originally appeared on Greater Good In Action, a website from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
We often judge ourselves more harshly than we judge others, beating ourselves up over our faults, flaws, and shortcomings. That makes us feel isolated, unhappy, and even more stressed; it may even make us try to feel better about ourselves by denigrating other people.
Rather than harsh self-criticism, a healthier response is to treat yourself with compassion and understanding. According to psychologist Kristin Neff, this “self-compassion” has three main components: mindfulness, a feeling of common humanity, and self-kindness. This exercise asks you to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion for an aspect of yourself that you don’t like. Research suggests that people who respond with compassion to their own flaws and setbacks—rather than beating themselves up—experience greater physical and mental health.
15 minutes. Try to do this practice once per week, or at least once per month.
How to Do It
First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. It could be something related to your personality, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life. Once you identify something, write it down and describe how it makes you feel. Sad? Embarrassed? Angry? Try to be as honest as possible, keeping in mind that no one but you will see what you write. The next step is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike. As you write, follow these guidelines:
- Imagine that there is someone who loves and accepts you unconditionally for who you are. What would that person say to you about this part of yourself?
- Remind yourself that everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like, and that no one is without flaws. Think about how many other people in the world are struggling with the same thing that you’re struggling with.
- Consider the ways in which events that have happened in your life, the family environment you grew up in, or even your genes may have contributed to this negative aspect of yourself.
- In a compassionate way, ask yourself whether there are things that you could do to improve or better cope with this negative aspect. Focus on how constructive changes could make you feel happier, healthier, or more fulfilled, and avoid judging yourself.
- After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it later and read it again. It may be especially helpful to read it whenever you’re feeling bad about this aspect of yourself, as a reminder to be more self-compassionate.
Evidence That It Works
Shapira, L. B., & Mongrain, M. (2010). The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 377-389.
Participants who wrote a self-compassionate letter every day for a week reported lower symptoms of depression and greater happiness three months later than they had beforehand; they also seemed happier and less depressed than participants who had written about an early memory every day for a week. Their increase in happiness persisted six months later.
Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28-44.
Participants in an eight-week Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, which included practicing the self-compassionate letter, among other exercises, reported feeling greater self-compassion at the end of the program than they had at the beginning. Their self-compassion at the end of the eight weeks was also greater than that of a comparison group that didn’t participate in the program. The MSC participants also reported greater mindfulness and happiness, and lower depression, anxiety, and stress.
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(9), 1133-1143.
Participants in an online study who wrote a compassionate paragraph to themselves regarding a personal weakness subsequently reported greater feelings of self-compassion. They also experienced other psychological benefits, such as greater motivation for self-improvement.
Why it Works
Self-compassion reduces painful feelings of shame and self-criticism that can compromise mental health and well-being and stand in the way of personal growth. Writing is a powerful way to cope with negative feelings and change the way you think about a difficult situation.
Writing in a self-compassionate way can help you replace your self-critical voice with a more compassionate one--one that comforts and reassures you rather than berating yourself for your shortcomings. It takes time and practice, but the more you write in this way, the more familiar and natural the compassionate voice will feel, and the easier it will be to remember to treat yourself kindly when you’re feeling down on yourself.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D., University of Texas, Austin