How Self-Compassion Helps with Anxiety

Anxiety can be a loud voice in your head telling you that something bad is going to happen.   Your heart rate starts to quicken, your thoughts speed up, and you feel a knot in your stomach. At times, you might feel disconnected from yourself or the world around you.

Moments in which you are experiencing anxiety can be quite uncomfortable. They can also be an opportunity to practice relating to yourself with self-compassion.

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion has three parts:

  1. Self-kindness (instead of self-judgment)
    Self-kindness involves opening up to your experience in the present moment, whether feelings of joy or sadness, and acknowledging your experience with warmth and love.
  2. Common humanity (instead of isolation)
    Self-compassion includes an acknowledgement that suffering is a normal part of being a human being. Often we feel alone or isolated in our suffering, but it is actually what connects us to others.
  3. Mindfulness (instead of over-identifying)
    Mindfulness involves observing thoughts and feelings, rather than identifying asthoughts and feelings. There is a difference between noticing the content of your thinking (e.g., “I’m having the thought that something bad is going to happen”) and taking your thoughts at face value and buying into the content of your thinking (e.g., “Something badis going to happen”).

One important study found that more self-compassion is associated with less symptoms of anxiety and depression. This does not mean that people engaging in self-compassion do not feel anxious or sad sometimes. They certainly do, as do all of us. However, welcoming rather than criticizing experiences of anxiety allows us to let go of struggling with anxiety, helping us let go of harsh judgments of ourselves and our experiences.

One of the great things about self-compassion exercises is that they can be practiced at any time. You can feel incredibly sad, anxious, or frustrated with yourself, and begin to build a habit of self-compassion.

How Do I Practice Self-Compassion?

Dr. Kristin Neff is probably the world’s leading expert on self-compassion and one of the key exercises she teaches is something called the “Self-Compassion Break.”

The exercise is done when you are in the midst of a situation that is causing your suffering or you are feeling something like anxiety, frustration, sadness, or any other painful emotion. You can use this exercise during any moment where you are having a hard time. The basic instructions include three steps:

  1. Acknowledge the pain or discomfort that you are feeling. You might say, “This is a moment of suffering.”
  2. Acknowledge your connectedness to others. You could say, “Suffering is a part of life.”
  3. Put your hands over your heart and say, “May I be kind to myself.”

If you want to hear an audio version, you can listen to it here. For a more detailed description of the exercise, see here. Once you practice the exercise a few times, you’ll find you can do it quite quickly whenever you need it.


Relating to your anxiety with self-compassion can help you make space for it, allowing it to be, rather than getting caught in a prolonged game of “anxiety tug-of-war.” Through self-compassion–through learning to relate to yourself and your experiences with kindness and compassion–you can learn to let go of internal struggles and connect more fully with the world around you.

For more self-compassion meditations or exercises, you can visit Dr. Neff’s resources or resources compiled by Portland Psychotherapy.

Click here to learn more about Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy

Pain, values, compassion, and a dying dog

“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”

 — Rumi

Just about three years ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Pain and values: two sides of the same coin” about our amazing dog Dalai. That post turned out to be one of the most popular pieces I’ve written. I wrote about the simultaneous, and I would say inseparably linked, love and pain that was consistently present for me when I was with Dalai, who was somewhere around 17-18 years old at the time. Because so many people have talked to me about that piece, I thought I would share an update and also some new thoughts I have on the topic of pain and values. If you want to read the original piece, you can find it here.

Dalai is still here, and so is the pain.

Believe it or not, Dalai is still with us, and at around 20+ years old, I’d say that little old lady is doing something right! She comes to work with us every day, usually riding in a trailer pulled behind the bike. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer about a year ago and has been on palliative care since. With the help of our amazing veterinarian, Heather Dillon, DVM, we’re able to manage her physical pain quite well and Dalai still has a wonderful quality of life.

And though I feel incredibly fortunate that Dalai is still with us, so too is the pain, anxiety, and sadness I feel when I think about what is to come. In fact, it’s difficult to admit, but there are even times when the pain is so intense that I notice having the thought that I wish it was over. Then of course I feel incredible pain at having that thought and the cycle goes on.

Compassion as palliative care

In my last post about this, I focused on the idea that I can’t move in the direction of my values if I’m not willing to experience painful thoughts and feelings – If I’m not willing to have those painful thoughts and the sadness that shows up when I’m with Dalai, I can’t care for her in the way I would choose to during this time in her life. The only way to get away from these difficult thoughts and feelings is to not be around her. And while it’s still very painful for me to be around Dalai, I’m not willing to give up one moment I could have with her just to avoid that pain. And in these past few years as both she and I have been working through the process of her aging and dying, I’ve learned a few things about how I want to be with that pain. So I thought I’d share something that for me has become an essential component in that equation of values and pain– compassion.

Just as my loved ones and I have been very intentional over these past several years about attending to Dalai’s physical pain as best we can, it’s also been helpful for me to attend to the emotional pain that those of us who love Dalai feel as we see her dying. Compassion, which literally means “to suffer together”, is a willingness to be present to suffering (another’s or your own) and a desire to ease that suffering. Compassion, including self-compassion, is my palliative care. It is what I am using to help ease the suffering my loved ones and I are feeling. Even though I help people develop self-compassion and be intentional about their values for a living, I found that although I wasn’t avoiding being with Dalai in order to avoid feeling the pain, I wasn’t fully present to it either; it was more like, “Well, that’s there and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m just not going to think about it.” And that can be helpful at times. But that isn’t how I treat others that I love when they are in pain and it felt incongruent with my values to treat my own pain in that way. So, over the past couple of years I have focused more and more on using compassion exercises in my own life, as a way to not only ease the pain I am feeling, but also honor it.

Quick self-compassion break

One of my favorite compassion exercises that I’ve incorporated into my life is Kristen Neff’s Self Compassion Break. The self-compassion break exercise gives me a way to treat myself with gentleness and kindness and also connect to the common humanity that is suffering. It is very quick and you can do it anywhere, which is great given that pain does not conveniently just show up when I have time to do a 30 minute compassion meditation. You can find an audio of the exercise here and a written script here. So next time you notice struggling with painful thoughts or feelings, especially when you know they are linked with something you care very deeply about, you might consider giving this exercise a try. And If you’re interested in reading more about compassion, my colleagues Jason Luoma (who also happens to be Dalai’s guardian too!) and Melissa Platt and I have a site dedicated to our work in that area called “ACT With Compassion” that you can check out here.

Thomas Merton once wrote that “Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.” When I am practicing compassion, I also often notice being more connected to all beings, including that little old dog at the heart of this all.

Helping People Grieve with Compassion

Comfort has its limits. One of the reasons it can be so difficult to approach someone who is suffering is that it can bring us face to face with our powerlessness to do anything about pain. We wish we could have control, make it all better, and relieve the pain of the people we care about. And yet despite our best efforts, the people we care about continue to experience pain, just for being human.

When it comes to loss, the pain people experience is often in proportion to their love. For many people, denying the pain of their loss is to deny the significance of what they had once found. People aren’t always seeking to sweep away pain, but rather need acknowledgement of the importance of their relationship with the deceased – something they don’t want to slip away.

“You’ll get over it…” It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. To lose

someone you love is to alter your life for ever. You don’t get over it

because “it” is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new

people, but the gap never closes. How could it? The particularness of someone

who mattered enough to grieve over is not made anodyne

by death. This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no-one else

can fit it. Why would I want them to?”

― Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

When someone is hurting but not looking for comfort, compassion can be found in simple acts of kindness and support. Compassion can come in the form of helpful actions, as when taking over responsibilities for cooking meals, childcare, or tending to the yard for a grieving person who is not ready to engage in these activities. Acting with compassion can also mean being a good listener – someone who is willing to witness pain without passing judgment. Just being fully present without trying to change anything can, paradoxically, make a big difference in how people experience pain. Rather than ridding life of pain, we can bring life to pain – we can wrap it in dignity, understanding, and love.  
Acting with compassion is not always easy, but if you would like to learn how to become more skillful with compassion there are ways of learning. For example, when distressed it can be difficult to make contact with compassionate feelings, but you can practice reconnecting with these feelings through regular self-compassion meditations. Similarly, the skill of being present can be cultivated through practicing mindfulness. You can learn to be more helpful to others by getting help with your communication skills, learning to become more skillful at taking other people’s perspectives, and learning more about the important role of values in people’s lives.

“I realized that it was not that I didn’t want to go on without him.

I did. It was just that I didn’t know why I wanted to go on.”

― Kay Redfield Jamison, Nothing Was the Same

Though it is perfectly wonderful to be comforting when we can and when it is wanted, sometimes comfort isn’t an option or isn’t the way forward. In such cases it can be helpful to remember that there is more to life than the absence of pain – there can be the presence of loving kindness and purpose. Cultivating compassion can be a meaningful way of fully acknowledging the pain of loss while moving deeper still into life.