April 1, 2022

Cultivating Self-Compassion to Improve Mental Health

By Chapel Taylor-Olsen and Dr. Ashley Yaugher

girl sitting on swing

People are often the most critical to themselves and are quick to criticize their own choices, habits, and thoughts. We are often not this way with others, like family or friends, because with others we tend to express compassion. This tendency of self-criticism can be hard on our mental health. In fact, one of the biggest changes that we could make to improve our mental health has to do with changing the way that we talk to ourselves toward being more compassionate.

Having self-compassion means relating to yourself in a healthy and caring way. People who are self-compassionate are kind to themselves, recognize that having negative traits and experiences is part of being human, and view their negative thoughts and feelings without judgment (Gedik, 2019; Thurston et al, 2021). People who show themselves compassion are more likely to make other healthy lifestyle changes and cope with difficult situations. Conversely, people who criticize themselves have a harder time adopting healthy habits (Gedik, 2019). People who practice self-compassion even have better heart health and lower risk for developing cardiovascular disease (Thurston et al., 2021). 

Here are five tips for how you can start showing more self-compassion:

  1. Recognizing Self-Talk – the first step to changing that voice in our heads is to become aware of what we are saying. When you are upset, take a moment to objectively notice what you are saying to yourself (“self-talk”) and what sort of tone you are using. Are there certain phrases or themes that come up again and again (Neff, 2022)?
  2. Forgive – accept that we are not perfect, and that being perfect is not our goal. We are human, and that means that sometimes we will feel disappointment with ourselves, shame, or guilt. This does not make us a bad person. It makes us normal (Clay, 2016; Ohlin, 2021).
  3. Soften Our Words – work on softening the words that we use about ourselves. Gently work to shift our mental talk to be kinder and more understanding. Think about what we might say to a close friend who is going through the same thing. What would we tell that person (Neff, 2022)?
  4. Express Gratitude – looking for things in our lives that we are grateful for is a good way to tone down the critic in our heads and refocus on more positive thoughts (Ohlin, 2021). Some people find a daily gratitude journal to be an easy way to do this or even a quick text to a loved one to express gratitude can help
  5. Practice Mindfulness – find times to be in the present moment, take deep breaths, ignore the pulls of worrying about the future as well as criticizing ourselves about the past. This allows our mind to refocus and calms our body which can help us manage our self-talk throughout the day (Ohlin, 2021). See the additional resources below for some links to mindfulness resources (e.g., take a self-compassion break, Neff, 2022).

Self-compassion is not selfish and can help us be the best version of ourselves for us and others. Dwelling on or suppressing negative emotions is not helpful, or even appropriate at times. We do not learn from this kind of self-attack as it only serves to further wear us down (Clay, 2016). To solve this and be more kind to ourselves, we need to treat ourselves like we would treat a close friend: give ourselves room to make mistakes without self-judgement or criticism, love ourselves even in the face of those mistakes, and support our ability to cope and grow. Start today -- Take some time to work on your self-compassion, with even five minutes, and start to see that improvements in your life are possible with small steps.

Additional Resources:

Self Compassion Exercises (Neff)
Mindfulness videos and Meditations


  • Clay, R. A. (2016, September). Continuing education: Don’t cry over spilled milk—the research on why it’s important to give yourself a break. Monitor on Psychology, 70-73. 
  • Gedik, Z. (2019). Self-compassion and health-promoting lifestyle behaviors in college students. Psychology, Health, & Medicine, 24(1), 108-114. https://doi.org/10.1080/13548506.2018.1503692
  • Neff, K. (2022). Exercise 5: changing your chritical self-talk. Self-Compassion.com. https://self-compassion.org/exercise-5-changing-critical-self-talk/  
  • Ohlin, B. (2021, November 25). Steps to develop self-compassion & overcome our inner critic. Positive Psychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/self-compassion-5-steps/
  • Thurston, R. C., Fritz, M. M., Chang, Y., Mitchell, E. B., & Maki, P. M. (2021). Self-compassion and subclinical cardiovascular disease among midlife women. Health Psychology, 40(11), 747-753. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0001137