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A Guide to Happiness via Self-Compassion

Photo by Amandine Marque
My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to find peace with exactly who and what I am. To take pride in my thoughts, my appearance, my talents, my flaws, and to stop this incessant worrying that I can’t be loved as I am. ~Anais Nin

You’re a kind person. A loving person. A compassionate person.

To other people.

But you hold yourself to a higher standard.

When you make a mistake, you’re tough on yourself. You judge yourself. You tell yourself you need to do better.

And although part of you thinks you’re doing this to keep yourself honest, perfect and at the high standards the world around you expects, another part of you — a small, delicate, exhausted part — wishes you could just let it go.

Because when you hold on to the shame, blame or guilt from a past mistake, this negativity colors your view of the world, like a pair of dark glasss placing everything in the shade.

The mistake pops back into your mind at odd times. You replay it, over and over. You imagine how others would react if they knew about your guilty secret.

You suffer.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The practice of self-compassion can help us forgive ourselves. We can still take responsibility for the things in our past where we believe we’ve messed up, we can still take action, and the practice of self-compassion even means we’re more likely to reach our goals.

What Happens When We Don’t Move On

Have you ever read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens? The character Miss Havisham (played by Helena Bonham Carter in a 2012 film version) embodies this perfectly. She lives in a huge mansion, with the result of her biggest mistake fossilizing around her.

In her youth, she fell in love with a man who defrauded her out of her inheritance and left her at the altar.

A proud and passionate young woman, she spends the rest of her life alone in her crumbling mansion, never removing her wedding dress, with the wedding cake uneaten on the table in front of her. Oh, and only wearing one shoe.

She is unable to forgive herself. To move on. And in the story, her life and the lives of several others are ruined because of it.

Few of us externalize our shame in such a way, but I think many of us can look inside ourselves and see that wedding cake crumbling on the table.

I do. I’m driven to get things right — to make things perfect. I can see myself clearly in Brene Brown’s definition of a perfectionist’s thoughts:

“If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.”

Owning that is hard. Because in owning that definition, I admit that in trying to be perfect, I’m imperfect.

A Work In Progress

But I know when we are able to forgive ourselves, we accept our failures, our imperfections — our humanity — and we can move on, ready to try anew.

No longer do we spend time beating ourselves up, criticizing our efforts and constantly dissatisfied with everything we achieve.

We recognize that our imperfections are what we have in common with other human beings.

Generating a sense of self-compassion and forgiving ourselves will always be a work in progress. It’s not something you tick off the list and move on. As a recovering perfectionist, I can whole-heartedly affirm that.

But it’s worth the journey. The benefits are huge, and there are a number of ways you can make progress.

1. Really Feel the Pain of the Mistake

Ever tried the classic thought experiment where you don’t think about a pink elephant?

Deliberately trying to ignore or forget about a mistake is a bit like that — in the end, you just end up focusing more attention on it.

This struggle with our thoughts becomes a barrier to forgiveness as we get caught up in the story around it and struggle to focus on the act of self-compassion and forgiveness itself.

Instead, get in touch with the mistake in order to forgive yourself. Both Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness use this technique.

To do this, sit quietly and let your thoughts about the mistake come: all the anxieties, the emotions, the thoughts, the bodily sensations. Don’t judge them; just see them, feel them and accept them as they are.

If you get caught up in one particular aspect, notice when this happens and move back to acceptance. This will probably happen many times.

Don’t get angry or frustrated if this happens; just notice it, and move on. Allow the pain to just be and acknowledge that your emotions, whatever they are, are valid and important.

2. Perform Critical Visualizations

Affirmations are a common prescription to develop self-love. But for those who have a negative self-image — a lack of self-compassion can certainly fall under this umbrella — affirmations can do more harm than good.

We may “talk back” to the affirmation and tell ourselves all the reasons why “I’m loveable” is actually wrong.

Instead, use critical visualization. Evidence suggests those who’ve used this technique received numerous benefits, including better mood, the likelihood of taking action to solve problems or of reaching out for advice and support, and the feeling of having grown or learned from their mistakes.

You can use the technique by thinking back to the mistake and then working through what happened up to the mistake.

Relive the steps, and at each decision point, consider how you could approach the same situation differently next time. Consider all possible obstacles, setbacks, and negatives — including the possibility of making the mistake again.

3. Combine Words, Emotions and Behavior

We’re verbal creatures. And when we attempt to forgive ourselves, we often say the words in our head. “I forgive myself.”

This is a good start, but it’s not enough. We need to get all our senses involved. We need to feel it — emotionally and physically.

Our bodies have an internal self-soothing system that we can activate by touching ourselves kindly, for example, by stroking our own arm. (It sounds odd, but it works!)

Research suggests this type of gentle, kind, physical touch releases oxytocin, provides a sense of security and soothes distressing emotions.

Find some time, and think about an occasion when you have been able to forgive yourself (or another person, if this is new to you). What emotions and feelings did you have? Feel those as strongly as you can.

Now, still feeling those emotions, say whatever words work for you (“I forgive myself for … ”) and stroke your arm or hug yourself.

Bring the experience of forgiveness to life in as many ways as possible: mentally, emotionally and physically.

4. Do Unto Yourself as You Would to Others

We can be a great deal kinder and a great deal more compassionate to others who are suffering than we are to ourselves.

We can use that emotion — that sense of compassion — to help forgive ourselves.

Imagine that someone in your life has done something wrong that affects you, and you forgave them. Or imagine that your best friend made the same mistake that you’re beating yourself up for making.

How would you treat them compassionately? How would you forgive them? What would you say? Get as concrete and detailed as possible.

This helps you both depersonalize what can be a fraught memory (you making the mistake in the first place) and also helps you tap into a sense of compassion.

Write out what you would say to them. Then, swap their name for yours, stand in front of a mirror, and read it back to yourself out loud.

5. Forgive Others as Practice for Forgiving Yourself

When we practice compassion with others, we’re more likely to be self-compassionate, and when we forgive others, we’re more likely to forgive ourselves. It’s a beautiful, virtuous circle.

Consider whether you’re hanging onto any anger at another person for a perceived wrong, and practice forgiving them.

6. Write About It (Briefly)

We’ve been told many times that writing about difficult situations can help us process and deal with them. However, there is a right and a wrong way to do so.

Research suggests that writing endless pages of detail about everything you did wrong is unlikely to support you in forgiving yourself. Write about the incident from a place of compassion.

Watch out for writing critically – listing all the things you did wrong, for example, may make you worry about it even more. Rather, write in a way where you are kind to yourself.

And take note of how your own experiences may be similar to others.’ Every human being makes mistakes. Acknowledge this in your writing.

7. Use Ritual to Help Your Primitive Brain Forgive

Our primitive brains are given a sense of control and comfort when we use rituals (symbolic behaviors performed before, after or during a meaningful event). You can create your own ritual, or use one that already exists as a structure.

For example, in Polynesian cultures, the practice of Ho?oponopono is a ritual for mental cleansing and forgiveness.

The process includes prayer, reflecting on the problem, acknowledging feelings, and working through the mistake and the causes. It also involves taking responsibility for the mistake, repenting and then following all this with forgiveness.

A modern version involves repeating and meditating on the four sentences:

  • I love you.
  • I’m sorry.
  • Please forgive me.
  • Thank you.

Create your own self-forgiveness ritual, and include symbolism. It could involve a particular form of words, writing down the mistake and burning it, props such as candles or incense, or going to a special place to reflect on the mistake. But make it deliberate and active.

Be Your Own Best Friend

I don’t want to be Miss Havisham. I don’t want to sit, in my mind, surrounded by mistakes like crumbs of stale wedding cake.

I want to accept myself, fail successfully, and move forward with self-compassion and love.

I want to do the best I can in every situation, while I treat myself with kindness. I want to remember that I am an imperfect, wonderful human being who is going to make mistakes.

I want you to do the same.

Pick one of the methods above. Spend five minutes with it today. And five minutes tomorrow.

And remember this.

You are an imperfect, wonderful human being, and you’ll make mistakes.

And that’s ok.

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About the author

Ellen Bard’s mission is to help you shine a little brighter in business and in life. She has a fancy degree, works with recovering perfectionists and loves all things that sparkle. If you want to know more about manifesting self-compassion, with the free cheatsheet "5 Unusual Ways to Take Better Care of Yourself," click over to

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31 thoughts on A Guide to Happiness via Self-Compassion

  1. Hi, Ellen,

    Love, love, love this article! I’ve befriended myself the last few years and life is so much better.


  2. Ann

    Great post. I agree, when we forgive others e are more likely to forgive ourselves. have to remind myself often time.


    • Thanks Ann – and I have to remind myself too. As long as you don’t beat yourself up for not forgiving yourself, all is well :-) We are all a work in progress…!

  3. I once did a mental exercise where I visualized myself after making a bad trade. It was almost comical how I was acting. It really helped take the emotions out of the situation and help me remain calm. These are all great tips. I had never heard of the self-soothing technique. Sounds fun. Thank you Ellen for writing this.

  4. Love the idea of failing successfully Ellen. We know that those who make no mistakes pretty much make nothing at all. So kudos to you for acknowledging all you are. Imperfectly perfect. Love it!

    • Thank you Elle! I really appreciate that coming from you. Sometimes it’s hard to own all of us, but you’re right, without mistakes we would be stuck in time, and we’d never make any progress at all. Here’s to all our perfect imperfections :-)

  5. I read this earlier, and thought, what great advice, but I don’t need it. Then of course, I just had an incident where I beat myself up! LOL. So I went back through your tips.
    Thank you, Ellen! These helped me this very day :)

    • Thanks Susan, I’m so glad it came in useful! I think that we beat ourselves up more than we even realise – I guess the first step is recognising it, and then doing something about it – but remembering we’re all a work in progress :-)

  6. Nicely done, Ellen.

    We all make mistakes. We all crash and burn. I’d say entrepreneurs do it a LOT more often. And, if we’re lucky, we do it in spectacular fashion with some style and a sense of humor about it.

    Is it easy? Nope. Does it feel good in the moment? Not usually.

    However, without practicing some extreme self love, most of us would burn out. Not to mention we would run out of energy to share with others, let alone invest into our businesses and projects.

    Whenever I hit one of these “learning moments” I try to remember to smile.

    Why? Because almost without fail, my biggest wins have always come on the heels of some pretty big failures and mistakes.

    Free writing lets me get it out on paper, so I can internalize the lesson and exactly what I can do to come back even stronger and kick some serious ass on the next go ’round.


    • Thanks Mike – I think you’re probably right – the best entrepreneurs, the most successful ones, definitely have a good number of failures under their belts. We have to take good care of ourselves, and as you say, practice self-love, if we’re going to remember that those failures are actually steps on the road to success.

      I love your reminder about smiling – definitely something for us all to keep practicing!

  7. Hey Ellen, great post. I love #4, Do Unto Yourself as You Would To Others. That’s a fabulous concept I’ll have to adopt!

  8. Hi Ellen,

    What insightful ideas about self-compassion! And it is good to be reminded that it’s always going to be a work in progress, and not something to be done once and move on (note to self!!). I’ve also been finding the concepts in ACT very useful for taking me to the next level of awareness. May your post help many people! :)


    • Thanks Andrea. Yes, I would recommend ACT as a way of processing negative thoughts and feelings, I think it’s a great form of therapy.

      It’s definitely hard to remember that we never stop learning if you’re someone who likes to tick things off a list (as I do :-) ) but we can grow our self-compassion, and our happiness if we try.

  9. Quinn Eurich

    Great article Ellen!

    Thank you for your explanations of why things work. Too often people tell you what to do and ask you to take what they’re saying on faith. I like that you share the reasoning behind what you’re recommending!

    • Thanks so much Quinn. I’m a psychologist by training, so I’m a big believer in understanding the science behind things – and making them practical, actionable and useful at the same time! Glad you liked this aspect :-)

  10. Jay

    Wow, nice article Ellen! I think you got some rock solid points there. I’m a compassionate guy and I try to exercise this mindset as much as possible. But it seems I could focus on it a lot more than I do now!

    • Thanks Jay, and if it helps, you’re not alone – and I tend to show a lot more compassion to others than I do myself :-) Wishing you a compassionate week!

  11. Hi, Ellen :) Since finishing your post, I have been thinking back on times I’ve had to forgive others vs. myself. It’s kind of sad how quick you can be to ease the minds of others, but not willing to extend the same kindness to yourself. Thanks for giving me some strategies to work on this. I had never heard of this type of self-soothing before, but it’s definitely worth trying!

    • I hear you Nicki – I also find it much easier to be gentle with others’ mistakes, whereas I’m a drill sergeant on my own. And the research suggests that that’s not actually the most effective way to improve! I think we can all use a little self-forgiveness and compassion. And the self-soothing is a bit odd, but it works – try it!

  12. Hi Ellen,

    Stopping by from SBO. Absolutely loved how you weaved in Great Expectations the pain of shame throughout your article. Nice job!


    • Thanks Peggy. I did Great Expectations at school, and that image of Miss Havisham in her house with the wedding gown always stayed with me. We can’t let our past shame and mistakes trap us in amber…

  13. Love it! And can’t agree more with nr. 1: Really feel the pain of the mistake. To me, it is the complete and utter acceptance of pain that brings you right back into the beauty of life and helps you let go.

    • Thanks Linda. And #1 is definitely one of the hardest to do. Acceptance without wallowing in the misery isn’t easy, but it’s better than trying to avoid the ‘pink elephant’ of your mistake in your mind…tell someone not to think about a pink elephant and it’s all they can think of. The same thing with our mistakes.

  14. Hey Ellen – super article on an ever recurring topic – so many good suggestions and different perspective on them. Being your own best friend is definitely paramount

    • Thanks Mark, and you’re right, the topic is pertinent for most of us. Sometimes I ask myself what I would do if I was my own best friend, and it’s a really helpful way to look at things.

  15. Ellen,

    Thank you for sharing your profound wisdom in a practical way. Here’s how important compassion is, in the words of one of my spiritual teachers: “Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source of both inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continual survival of our species.” – Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

  16. Ann

    Ellen, Great post! I need to remember often to be my best friends.

    • Thanks Ann – but the key thing is you’re not alone :-) But it’s a great way of reminding yourself to be compassionate to yourself, just asking yourself ‘what would I say to myself if I was my best friend’. It’s like giving yourself a kind pep talk :-)

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