In 2008, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) founder Dr. Steven Hayes identified four of the key processes that make self-compassion possible. These processes can be targeted in therapeutic work, as a way of helping to build the skill of self-compassion. They are based on the six core processes of the ACT model.
1.Embracing Difficult Feelings
It’s human nature to want to avoid painful feelings and pursue pleasant ones, but left unchecked, this tendency can lead to a range of disordered behavior. Unlike self-esteem, which tends to be much less useful to us when we feel down, self-compassion is built to withstand waves of difficult feelings.
The first step to building self-compassion is noticing when difficult feelings arise—often by paying attention to sensations in the body and breath. As these feelings come up, we may take deep breaths or place our hands on the areas where we feel the emotion in our bodies. Whatever practice we choose to do in these times, the important thing to note is that we are accepting what is happening, rather than avoiding or pushing it away.
2. Observing Judgmental Thoughts Without Merging With Them
Troubling, harshly judgmental or self-critical thoughts are not inherently harmful. In fact, it is the way we relate to such thoughts that determines whether the thoughts are dangerous or benign.
Our capacity for self-compassion hinges on our ability to step back and become disentangled from sticky thoughts when they arise (in ACT, this is called defusion).
To notice judgmental thoughts without fusing with them is a radical act of self-compassion. When we can do this, we also have the power to extend kindness or empathy to troubling thoughts, which transforms their influence over us.
3. Connecting with the Transcendent Self
Many spiritual practices focus on helping practitioners access a transcendent, wise self that has the innate ability to observe and contain all the content of the mind. From this perspective, thoughts are just thoughts, feelings are fleeting, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to not sweat the small stuff.
Making contact with this version of the self is another key to self-compassion. Through an experience of the self that is broader than what we typically think of as our “self”—a collection of labels we’ve accumulated through jobs, mental illnesses, communities, cultural identities, family roles, and more—we gain just enough distance to transcend the things that weigh us down, even if only for a moment.
4. Doing What Matters
Behavior has the unique power to stimulate feeling states and significantly impact our mood. In some ways, taking actions that don’t align with our values is a form of violence against ourselves. When we neglect to take the actions that move us toward what truly matters to us, we disregard our wellness and invite unnecessary suffering.
Doing what matters, on the other hand, stimulates and revitalizes our being on every level. When we engage in behaviors that give us purpose and meaning, we naturally become more vibrant, flexible, and alive.
Self-compassion is a skill that has the power to enhance our lives in every domain. Doing what’s needed to take care of ourselves—whether at work, at home, with friends, with partners, in community, or elsewhere—involves carefully considering what’s in our best interest in the long-term. Certainly, building this skill is a worthwhile endeavor.