A Love Letter to Yourself: Self-Compassion Practice

Three mindfulness exercises to help you get out of cycles of shame and put your energy toward kindness to yourself and others.

Adobe Stock | Ezio Gutzemberg

I have a friend whose Valentine’s gift to herself this year is to write a love letter to each of her body parts, one at a time. “I started with my vagina,” she told me. “Because that part has been treated the worst. But, now that I’m writing a love letter to my face, I just want to hold my cheeks and cry.”

What a courageous act of self-compassion. For most of us, our instinct isn’t to write love letters to the parts of ourselves that hurt. Especially the parts that we feel shame around.

When I was in college I had a roommate who used to carve the word “stupid” into her leg with her pencil when she was doing homework. When I asked her about it, she said it was to remind herself to work harder.

We all have parts of us that hurt, make mistakes, or do things we regret. However, it’s how we respond to ourselves in those moments that make a difference as to whether we collapse into shame or feel bolstered even with our human imperfections.

Do you use negative self-talk to motivate yourself? Do you criticize your faults? Maybe you don’t carve it into your leg, but you might say it under your breath. “That was stupid.”

Nobody is immune from suffering. We all have parts of us that hurt, make mistakes, or do things we regret. However, it’s how we respond to ourselves in those moments that make a difference as to whether we collapse into shame or feel bolstered even with our human imperfections.

The Science of Self-Compassion

You may think that being self-critical motivates you to change, but research shows quite the opposite is true. Self-criticism lowers your self-confidence and increases anxiety and depression, undermining your ability to take steps toward change. In contrast, self-compassion motivates you to make healthier decisions and care for yourself.

For example, in a research study conducted by Adams and Leary (2007) that I fondly call “the donut study,” two groups of restrictive eaters were asked to eat a donut while waiting for the study to start. (Take note if you are ever in a psychology experiment, it begins as soon as you sign the consent forms!) The dieters were then asked to taste test three bowls of candy. Which is better? Reeses, Skittles, or York Peppermint Patties? (duh, Reeses of course). Before going in for the taste test, half the dieters were given a self-compassion intervention. A researcher told them: “I hope you won’t be hard on yourself for eating the donut. Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff.”

The findings? Those that were given the self-compassion intervention ate less candy than those who were given no intervention. Self-compassion, which involves treating yourself with the same kindness and care you would a good friend, helps you let go of guilt (everyone eats donuts sometimes) and act in ways that are beneficial to your well-being (I think I’ve had enough sugar for today).

What Self-Compassion Is, and What It Isn’t

Paul Gilbert, the creator of compassion-focused therapy, describes compassion as having two parts:

1. Engagement: turning toward pain and suffering

2. Alleviation: taking action to reduce pain and suffering

By acknowledging your suffering and giving yourself what you really need, you can better tolerate hardship and be there for others. Self-compassion isn’t always easy and, at times, can mean making hard decisions that are better for you in the long run.

As a clinical psychologist, I get a peek inside the minds of how people talk to themselves, and it’s not pretty. “Your mind is the worst motivational coach,” I told my client last week when he was describing his attempts at dating. “If a coach told you some of the things you are telling yourself right now, ‘You aren’t good enough. You’re too short. Remember your last failed relationship?’ you’d fire them!” To show up as the best version of you, you need an inner coach that is wise, warm, encouraging, honest, and who will be there for you when you are rejected. Because you will be.

What would that encouraging coach say to you right now?

A Mindfulness Practice for Self-Compassion

I developed The Self-Compassion Daily Journal to offer readers a place to learn and practice the skills of self-compassion as they move through life’s daily challenges. It may not come naturally to you to stay present for yourself when you are feeling anxious or sad, to speak in a kind warm tone when you are trying something new, or to turn to others and ask for help when you are in trouble. But, like any skill, self-compassion can be strengthened with practice. Journaling can be especially helpful when building self-compassion because it helps you zoom out and take perspective on yourself. A compassionate perspective. Try these journal exercises out, and if you find them helpful you can learn more about how to grow your self-compassion here.

1. Write a love letter to your body 

Pick a body part that has experienced some degree of pain or suffering. First, let this part write a letter to you about what it has been like to be them. What has been difficult? What harmed them the most? What does this body part need to tell you? Then, write a love letter back. Include a commitment as to how you plan to care for this body part in the here and now.

 2. Embody self-compassion

Research by Dr. Marcela Matos suggests that one of the most powerful ways to engage self-compassion is to take on the physical posture of a compassionate self. Soften your eyes and take on a warm, loving facial expression. Breathe with long soothing breaths, as if you were safe, confident, and assured. Speak to yourself in a kind and caring tone. Say your name right now. Then choose a challenge you are facing today. Where would it be most helpful to embody this compassionate self?

3. Just like you 

It’s comforting to know, when you’re struggling, that you’re not unique. Whether you’re going through a stressful time or have made a big blunder, there’s nothing wrong with you for feeling what you do. There are undoubtedly others right now who feel the same way. That’s the human experience. 

Try this journal practice: Imagine that someone you love was going through a situation that is similar to yours. Just like you, they struggle. What would you tell them? 

With self-compassion, you can achieve what you hope to achieve in life while feeling nourished by your own kindness. With self-compassion you can take the energy you put into beating yourself up and put it toward making positive changes. You’re less likely to get stuck in cycles of shame, and better equipped to stick with hard things, and have more compassion for others. Try it out, and as you do, be gentle with yourself—it’s a practice.