CMSC Blog

Self-Compassion for the Holidays

by Chris Germer
Certified Teacher
December 13, 2018

By Drs Chris Germer and Kristin Neff

Co-founders, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
December 13, 2018

Life isn’t easy, and for many people, that’s especially true during the holidays.  You could be all alone in your apartment and holding your breath until January finally arrives. Or you might be with family, hoping in vain to be truly seen, respected, and appreciated for who you are. And when New Year’s Day comes around, there’s a whole new set of expectations—and resolutions—with only ourselves to blame when we fail to meet our goals. Yes, the holidays are not always pretty. Fortunately, there’s an antidote to these kinds of holiday stress that can actually make us more emotionally resilient, give us more positive feelings, and leave us feeling overall better about ourselves and others.  That’s self-compassion.

How do you respond when someone you love—perhaps a child or a pet—is struggling or in pain?  Probably your heart opens, you sense what the other being is going through, and you have a strong wish to help in some way. Self-compassion is just like that with a small shift in the direction of attention.

When we feel a shot of discomfort in our own lives—anxiety about the coming event, anger at a thoughtless family member, grief over a loved one who passed away—we can still give ourselves compassion precisely in our moment of need.

This exercise from the MSC program—“soften, soothe, allow”—is a way of treating yourself well at the physical, mental, and emotional levels. After you’ve practiced for a few weeks, you’ll be able to do the whole process in a few seconds. See if you can create a wide, tender, more loving space to feel exactly what you’re feeling, and room for yourself to be just who you are, warts and all. Self-compassion is an exercise in being fully human, and taking a moment to see ourselves, to validate ourselves, and to comfort and soothe ourselves when we need it the most.

Soften, Soothe, Allow

It’s simple to do. Just take a deep breath to disentangle from the usual cascade of upsetting thoughts and feelings, and try the following:

  • Close your eyes and put your hand over your heart. Feel the warmth of your hand and breathe smoothly for about a minute.
  • Next, let your attention drop into your body and notice where you feel tension.  Your belly? Chest? Throat? Shoulders? Jaw? Forehead?
  • Now soften the area of your body where you feel the most tension.  Choose just one area and let it soften as if you were applying a warm compress to the area. Heat softens our muscles without any additional effort. 
  • Next, soothe yourself by offering a little kindness to yourself simply because you’re going through a tough time. Say to yourself something like: “May I feel safe.  May my heart be at peace. May I know my own value.” Use whatever language makes sense and feels right at the time.
  • Then, allow yourself just to feel what you’re feeling in your body even if it’s unpleasant.  Give a wide, affectionate space to what you’re feeling in this very moment.  Let it be so, just for now. 
  • Now slowly open your eyes.

What it comes down to is the intention to be good too ourselves when things go wrong—when we fail, feel inadequate, or suffer.  But this intention is not stressful—it’s not extra work. Self-compassion is about subtracting, not adding.  We’re subtracting the stress that we usually place on ourselves, layer upon layer, as we resist or avoid emotional pain and discomfort. When we’re being self-compassionate, we stop tightening our muscles, fighting thoughts, avoiding bad feelings, isolating ourselves, and ruminating. As the poet, Mary Oliver, wrote, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” The path to self-compassion is easy in the beginning, the middle, and the end.  If it isn’t, then you’re cultivating the fine art of stress, not self-compassion.

Can you give yourself a warm bath after a stressful holiday gathering?  Can you savor your food slowly rather than eating too much?  Can you feel and let go of the occasional pain in your heart over the dinner table and focus on what’s most important to you?  And if you fail, can you recognize that you’re only human and give yourself a break?

If you feel lonely during the holidays, see if you can stop and name the experience (“I’m terribly lonely”) and give yourself the kindness you might be hoping to receive if you were with someone who cared about you. Think what your best friend would say to you if she or he knew you were lonely. Or think what you might say to a loved one under similar circumstances. Let the holiday be an opportunity to practice self-compassion. Can you prepare a nice meal for yourself, get some needed exercise, write an email to an old friend, or plan a trip that you always wanted to take?  Or can you just curl up with your dog or cat and read a great book?

When you start practicing self-compassion, just be careful not to throw self-compassion at yourself to make emotional pain go away. That won’t work and will leave you feeling more discouraged.

Self-compassion is a natural, loving response to pain.  You won’t feel better if you use it to resist moment-to-moment experience, but you’ll definitely feel better as a byproduct of self-compassion.  All we have to do is touch our inner pain with a tender awareness, and then bring care and kindness to ourselves.

Many people feel it’s selfish to attend to themselves in times of need. If you feel that way, please ask yourself who told you that. If there are eight people around a holiday dinner table and an emotional arrow strikes you in the heart, why not rush to the aid of the person who’s in pain and whom you can help the most?  In that case, you could excuse yourself for a moment, take a deep breath, put your hand over your heart, and tenderly say to yourself, “Yes I know, this hurts.”  That could make a world of difference to you and to the other people in your life. 

Generally speaking, opening to the pain in our own hearts allows us to move beyond ourselves and be compassionate to others as well.

Self-compassion is about self-kindness, not striving for self-improvement. The mindset of New Year’s resolutions is typically the opposite of self-compassion.  Assuming that you’re defective, deficient, or unlovable unless you lose 20 pounds is a subtle form of violence to oneself. Tara Brach says self-compassion is “the ground of all emotional healing.”  From that basis, you’ll be in a better position to change your life.  For example, when we slip off our diets or become impatient with the kids, we can admit our failures, learn from them, and recommit to what’s really important in our lives, often in an even more skillful and effective way.

If you must make a New Year’s resolution this year, why not start at the beginning—commit yourself to be more self-compassionate, especially when you’re not.

Life is difficult, but fortunately, we have the skills to manage most emotional challenges.  We have the capacity of mindfulness (affectionate, moment-to-moment awareness, or “open eyes”) and self-compassion (a kind and understanding response, or “open heart”).  However, these skills need to be strengthened as we go through our lives in order to handle the emotional challenges that come our way, especially those that sneak up on us over the holidays. One moment of mindful self-compassion may be all that’s necessary to change your experience of the holidays, and a string of such moments could possibly change your entire life.