How to Increase Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is about being encouraging, understanding, and forgiving to yourself. It might be helpful to think of self-compassion as treating yourself like you treat a close friend. Athletes tend to lack self-compassion because they hold themselves to a high standard and are overly aware of their mistakes. It’s okay to expect yourself to do well, but beating yourself up for falling short of expectations is a slippery slope.

Self-compassion doesn’t mean you don’t strive for excellence or that you won’t work hard. Self-compassion means you strive for excellence and work hard because you know you’re capable of doing well and you have the tools to respond to mistakes with grace. Research shows that self-compassion can even help increase motivation, resiliency, and healthy risk taking. Three pillars of self-compassion include mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness means being aware in the present moment. The first step in increasing self-compassion is to be more aware of your thoughts – whether they’re positive or negative. Self-talk can be subtle, so no worries if it takes some time to tune into how you’re speaking to yourself. After you’re more aware of your thoughts and feelings, try to notice them without judgment, or without categorizing them as “good” or “bad.” One way to practice paying more attention to the way you talk to yourself is to keep a journal and write down anything you feel bad about and anything you judged yourself for throughout the day. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to capture all the thoughts and feelings you have – just pick a couple that stand out to you.

2. Kindness

Sports culture often claims that forgiveness and acceptance will keep athletes from reaching their goals. In reality, athletes who motivate themselves out of fear are more likely to give up when they make mistakes than those who motivate themselves out of a place of forgiveness and personal striving. Research shows that when you’re motivated out of self-kindness rather than fear of failure, you’re more likely to try again after making a mistake.

Responding to yourself with kindness includes reframing thoughts. For example, while running a drill, you could reframe the thought, “I’m so slow right now” to “I want to get faster. I’ll keep working on this.” Practice treating yourself more kindly by picking a mantra or short phrase to repeat when you’re frustrated or upset. Examples: “I’m confident in myself,” “I have the skills needed to perform well,” “I can stay focused under pressure,” “I’m a supportive teammate,” “I’m a dedicated athlete and hard worker,” and “I always give my best effort.” Even if you don’t believe what you’re telling yourself at first, you’re training yourself to reinforce positive aspects of yourself rather than tearing yourself down. If you give the mindfulness journaling exercise we mentioned above a try, follow up writing down judgmental or self-critical thoughts with writing down your positive mantra.

3. Common humanity

Practicing self-compassion requires you to put things into perspective. One way you can do this is by reminding yourself that other people make mistakes and aren’t perfect all of the time either. It’s human nature to mess up, and it’s part of the journey as an athlete to make mistakes or fall short of expectations. If you find yourself thinking negatively about a turn you just took or a game you just played in, remind yourself that this is part of the athlete experience. One helpful exercise includes responding to yourself similar to how you would treat a friend who was being especially down on themselves.

Try out the following exercise to practice how to talk to yourself when you might be feeling frustrated or self-critical. 

  1. Think about a time when a close friend was feeling bad about themselves or was really struggling. How did you respond to your friend in this situation? Write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
  2. Think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
  3. Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?
  4. Write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering. Why not try treating yourself like a good friend and see what happens?

Learning how to treat yourself with compassion is a process, and it might take time and effort before you start to replace the negative thoughts you have with more positive thoughts. Think of self-compassion as a skill similar to a new skill you’d like to learn in your sport. Give it your best go, and remind yourself that you’ll have off days sometimes. The most important thing is to keep practicing, and eventually treating yourself with kindness and compassion will come more naturally.

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