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Self-compassion - your new best friend

The recent World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and the World Athletics Championships in Hungary have highlighted how easy it could be to beat ourselves up when a performance falls short. But these amazing spectacles of sport have also brought to the fore the performance and well-being benefits of treating ourselves, and others, with self-compassion.

In sport, the performance benefits of learning self-compassion are increasingly documented. Laurence Halstead, co-founder of The True Athlete Project believes that self-compassion training would help athletes focus better on their performance, gain a healthier relationship to their sport and improve their general wellbeing. His view is we’d end up with a generation of much more balanced and outwardly compassionate athletes and coaches, motivated by the love of self-improvement than the fear of criticism.

Other research with athletes has found that individuals who were more able to hold their actions with compassion after a setback had a much better recovery from the challenging thoughts and feeling they experienced in that situation. In addition, other studies show that being able to show yourself self-compassion in difficult situations is positively correlated with self-esteem. It seems too that self-compassion can act as a buffer against feelings of isolation, physical suffering, and criticism, and has a role in facilitating our capability to reframe our goals and achievements to maintain our determination to succeed.


However, you don’t need to be a world-class footballer or an elite athlete to benefit from a healthy dose of self-compassion in your life. It might be a close relationship has broken down. Perhaps the business contracts you were banking on have fallen through. Maybe you didn’t get the new job you just interviewed for. Whatever the reason, when setbacks come, self-compassion can be your new best friend in business too.

Self-compassion expert Kristin Neff outlines its three main components:

  • self-kindness—being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure, rather than being harshly self-critical.

  • common humanity—perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience, rather than seeing them as separating and isolating; and

  • mindfulness—holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness, rather than over-identifying with them.

In our forthcoming book, Drop the Struggle, Jenna Ashford and I put it quite simply – self-compassion is being kind to yourself.

You might think self-compassion is something everyone else does except you? Surprisingly, being kind to yourself doesn’t come so easy to most of us.

Write a kind and compassionate letter to yourself

In our work, we use many ways to help someone to move towards being kinder to themselves. One of my favourites is very simple. Write a kind and compassionate letter to yourself:

Think about a situation where you treat yourself harshly, beat yourself up or question your thoughts over and over again. When do you question if you are doing enough or doing it right? Name this situation. In sport if might be a missed penalty or a race where you came out of the medals. In work it might be speaking out at an important meeting, in an interview situation, or facing a crucial client deadline.

Simply thinking about this situation, it’s likely that uncomfortable thoughts come up – I am not good enough, I’ve let myself/others down, how could I have been so stupid/carless/fearful – you can fill in the blanks here with your own version of these thoughts. Then just let those thoughts be, without trying to do anything with them.

And remember the feelings that go with this experience. Perhaps you felt afraid, nervous, worried, ashamed, guilty, self-conscious, or inferior. Take a breath and make space for those feelings.

Now think about how you might speak with yourself in a particularly kind and caring way. Try to imagine what your voice would sound like. Think about what you might say to yourself as a reminder that you have faced these thoughts and feelings before in this situation. And you’ve got through it – you were OK. You took the penalty or went for the interview, even though your mind told you these thoughts and you felt these feelings.

Let that sink in.

Now grab a pen and your notebook or paper. Start with “Dear [insert your name], I know that [the situation you named] is really hard for you. You will be safe doing this and I will be here with you. You have come through a time when you felt [add the feelings] and thought [add the thoughts].” Then continue adding the kind and caring words that your best friend might say to you – “you are too hard on yourself, look how much you practice” or “don’t sweat the small stuff, you can relax”, or “you always give things your best shot, no one can ask more of you,” or maybe “you are great just as you are.”

Then read your letter back to yourself. Keep it somewhere you can access when you next find you are self-critical and judgemental.

Your new best friend

Remember, this is not an exercise in saying positive statements. You are not changing how you feel or think.

Instead of being self-critical, writing the letter is one of many opportunities to be kind to yourself when life is tough, or setbacks come. The uncomfortable thoughts and feelings you experience in those times are part of the wider human experience – you are not alone, broken, or isolated in feeling or thinking these things. Speaking words of self-compassion to yourself allows you to hold those uncomfortable and unwanted thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness.

Just like your best friend might do for you.

Copies of the book Drop the Struggle: A transformative approach to sport and life, By Dr Alison Maitland and Jenna Ashford can be pre-ordered from or from all good booksellers including Amazon

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