teddy bear looking at mountains | self compassion meditation
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Ever find yourself in an internal dialogue of mental insults, all directed at yourself? “You’re such an idiot—why did you say that?” Or, “You’ll never be good at X, you might as well give up now.” 

This is called having a harsh inner critic, and it’s quite common. In fact, psychologists theorize that self-criticism evolved as a form of self-defense. When we are threatened, we’re wired to attack the problem, but in this case, we see ourselves or our behavior as the problem. Intense self-criticism is also associated with anxiety and depression. 

Fortunately, we have an internal care system that can calm the inner critic. When we tap into the care system, feel-good hormones like oxytocin are released, and our stress response can settle down. Gentle, soothing touch is one way to activate this care system.

Soothing touch practice

Originally developed by self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff, PhD, and clinical psychologist Christopher Germer, the following practice is an invitation to explore what type of soothing touch is most comforting and supportive to you. Afterward, you can use it to support yourself whenever you are under stress or notice your inner critic emerging.

To begin, find a private space where you can sit comfortably. Sitting upright helps you remain alert, but if you prefer to lie down, that works too. Closing your eyes can help you focus on the touch, or you can hold a soft gaze toward the floor if that’s more comfortable for you. 

As you listen to the guided meditation, you will be asked to bring to mind a stressful moment. Try to choose one that’s around a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the most stressful) so the experience is relaxing rather than triggering or traumatic. 

One final note before you listen: If physical touch brings up painful moments or trauma for you, try touching an object, like a soft blanket or stuffed animal, instead of a body part.

Welcome. This is the soothing touch practice. Different physical touches evoke different responses in people, so this is an invitation to find out what may work for you. Begin by finding a comfortable position. Sit in a chair or on the floor. Lie down, or even stand up. Whatever works for you today is just fine. And when you have found your comfortable position, gently close the eyes. You may begin with a deep breath in and then a longer, slower exhale. And again, inhaling, filling up the lungs and breathing out, releasing, softening the body. And then, briefly checking in with your body and mind. How are you feeling in this moment? How are you feeling physically? How are you feeling emotionally? And if the mind seems busy or cluttered, just continue to soften the body. Surrendering to gravity, being here in this moment.

[ Music ]

And now bringing to mind a moment from the past week or so that was difficult or stressful. Choose a problem in the mild range, not a big problem, and see if you can visualize the situation very clearly, like a movie playing in your mind.

[ Music ]

What is the setting? Who is speaking?

[ Music ]

What is happening? What might happen? Can you feel any discomfort in your body as you bring this difficulty to mind?

[ Music ]

Do you feel any tightness? Any tingling? And as you picture this difficulty like a movie in your mind, see if you can pause the movie at the peak moment, and now try silently saying to yourself, “This is a difficult moment,” or, “This is stressful.” And next, in your mind, silently say to yourself, “In life, there are difficult moments,” or perhaps, “Everyone experiences suffering.” And now, take one hand and place it on your heart. Sense the connection of your hand on your heart. Allow the hand to be gentle, nestle it into a comfortable space as your body continues to breathe.

[ Music ]

And now, take the second hand and put it on the first one, making contact, allowing the second hand to support the first one and noticing what this feels like, just letting be for a moment.

[ Music ]

And now, move one hand to the belly while the other remains on the heart and resting like this, noticing what this position feels like.

[ Music ]

This is an exercise in curiosity, an experiment, so maybe switch hands and see what that is like.

[ Music ]

Now, both hands on the belly. How does this feel?

[ Music ]

What emotions are present now?

[ Music ]

Now, take one hand and place it on one cheek.

[ Music ]

Being aware of what this feels like, and just breathing.

[ Music ]

And moving that hand to the opposite upper arm and the second hand to the opposite upper arm, as if you were giving yourself a gentle hug.

[ Music ]

And lingering here for a moment.

[ Music ]

And as you continue to breathe, just considering what was the position that feel the most soothing to you? And spend the next few moments in that position, allowing yourself; to linger in that connection.

[ Music ]

Perhaps inviting a gentle smile to the corners of the lips and silently saying to yourself, “I am safe.”

[ Music ]

And as we conclude the meditation, take a moment to thank yourself for this special time, knowing that you can always return to your soothing touch.

[ Music ]

At the sound of the bells, begin to open the eyes, allowing some light to come in and bringing this self-compassion with you throughout the day.

[ Bell Rings ]

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Have you seen at least one thing on that you will apply to everyday life?
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Article sources

Germer, C., and Neff, K. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook. Guilford Press.

Germer, C., and Neff, K. (2019). Teaching the mindful self-compassion program. Guilford Press. 

LeDoux, J. E. (2003). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. Penguin. 

Markway, B. (2018, January 27). The secret agenda of the self-critic: Understanding the underlying source of self-criticism can set us free. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shyness-is-nice/201801/the-secret-agenda-the-self-critic

Neff, K. (2012, July 2). The physiology of self-compassion: Our bodies know how to feel care. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-self-compassion/201207/the-physiology-self-compassion

Schroeder, M. (2016, March 17). Self-criticism can be psychologically devastating: How to overcome it. US News & World Report. https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/2016-03-17/self-criticism-can-be-psychologically-devastating-how-to-overcome-it

Solomon, J., & George. C. (1996). Defining the caregiving system: Toward a theory of caregiving. Infant Mental Health Journal, 17(3), 183–197.

Stellar, J. E., & Keltner, D. (2014). Compassion. In M. Tugade, L. Shiota, & L. Kurby (Eds.), Handbook of positive emotions (pp. 329–341). Guilford Press.