RESOURCES TO GROW INNER STRENGTHS FOR

Self-Compassion and Self-Worth

For many of us, perhaps the hardest thing of all is to believe that “I am a good person.”

There’s a critical, dismissive, shaming voice inside many of us that is usually much louder than the protecting, encouraging, valuing inner nurturer.

But the truth, the fact, is that you are a good person.

And when you start to feel your own natural goodness, you are more likely to act in good ways and more able to recognize the good in others and do what you can to build the good in the world we share together.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Psychologist and Author Dr. Rick Hanson answers questions about

Self-Compassion and Self-Worth

Why do people 'beat themselves up?' What process is behind that?

I think people beat themselves up – which is different from healthy guidance of oneself (which includes appropriate winces of remorse or shame) – for two reasons: too much inner attacking, and too little inner nurturance. These two forces in the mind are out of balance. Why? Multiple reasons, including individual differences in temperament (some people are more prone to anxiety or grumpiness). But for most people the primary sources are what they have internalized (especially as a child) from their family, peers, and culture. Then, once harsh self-criticism has been internalized along with insufficient internalization of self-nurturance, beating oneself up can take on a life of its own, both as simply a habit and as a way (that goes much too far, at considerable cost) to avoid the possibility of making mistakes or looking bad in front of others.

Whole networks of neurons and related and complex physical processes (e.g., neurotransmitter activity, epigenetic processes) are the basis for acquiring fears, including because a person has been on the receiving end of much anger from others. In other words, learning occurs: emotional, social, somatic, motivational, attitudinal learning: enduring changes in neural structure or function due to a person’s experiences. Check out Joseph LeDoux and the learning of anxiety and fear.

The amygdala also flags experiences as personally relevant, with a bias in most people’s brains toward flagging what is negatively relevant. Then the hippocampus gets involved, tagging that relevant experience for storage. (I’m simplifying a complex process, that also involves other circuitry in the brain.) The amygdala and hippocampus have receptors for various neurochemicals, including oxytocin, and over time these subcortical parts of the brain (two of each, on either side of the brain) can be modified by our experiences; in effect, they “learn,” too.

How do I develop an inner protector?

Not being able to find an inner protector is a real fact of the inner of world of many people. Developing one is a matter of committed practice toward one’s own well-being, which will gradually change the brain. Some steps along the way:

  • Look for little natural moments when there is a feeling, no matter how small, of ease, relaxation, loosening of contraction, exhaling, satisfaction of a need (e.g., drinking water when thirsty), sinking into the sofa at the end of the day, crawling into bed, or whatever else. Then deliberately rest your mind upon them, stay with them in awareness, savor them, and let them sink in for a dozen seconds or longer. As you persist in this little practice – several times a day or more – open to it becoming a more general felt sense of settling in the body, feeling more ease, less tension . . . even a growing sense of refuge or a bit of safety in this general easing.
  • Look for moments when others are at all kind, supportive, friendly, companionable, and inclusive, or even valuing, appreciative, affectionate, and loving! Consciously recognize the fact of what is happening. You may personally think you are not worthy of this positive attention or caring, but it is an undeniable fact that the other person thinks you are! Next, gently prod yourself to let this factual recognition become an emotional experience, even a subtle or mild one, of feeling cared about – that you matter even if it’s in a small way. Then, in the same way as before, try to stay with this experience in your mind of feeling liked, appreciated, seen, understood, supported, or loved for a dozen seconds or more. Sense that it is sinking into you.

If you do these two things, over and over again, you will gradually plant the seeds that will grow into an inner protector.

There are other methods as well, and I encourage you to look into my book, Just One Thing, and its practices on self-compassion, getting on your own side, taking in the good, and seeing the good in yourself.

Hang in there with this. Look out at the world, with its 7+ billion human beings, and countless other living plants and animals and microbes on the earth, in the water, and in the air. I am sure you wish those beings well. You would wish that they would have and experience an inner protector (or the animal, plant, or microbe equivalent). Well, you are one of those beings! No different from the other humans, no less deserving of true happiness and its causes, including an inner protector. Much as you would wish an inner protector for all those beings, you could rightfully wish one for yourself. I wish one for you – and I bet so would everyone else who knows you, if they thought about it. It’s alright to join this club!

What can be done to elicit the desired response and inhibit the undesired one, for those experiencing high levels of self-criticism?
  1. The direct way to grow a psychological resource is to experience (“activate”) it in order to “install” it. But sometimes that is challenging or upsetting. So we grow factors of this resource through experiences of these factors that are more accessible. Let’s say the direct experience of self-compassion is hard for the reasons you very insightfully identify. But the experience of a factor of self-compassion – such as the concept that justice applies to oneself as well as to others, or the capacity to calm the body when upset – might be within reach.
  2. In order to tolerate resource experience Z, we may need to grow resource Y . . . but perhaps experiencing Y is also reactivating and challenging. So then we grow resource X that enables us to experience and grow Y so that . . . we are now able to experience Z and thereby grow it. For example, training in mindfulness (X) could promote the capacity to experience body sensations in general without being flooded (resource Y), and developing this Y could enable a person to experience self-compassion (Z) more directly.

The distinction between 1 and 2 blurs in practice. The main difference is that 2 is more deliberately and planfully sequential, and is a road map for therapists and also for people in general.

Is there a basic first step to break the patterns we have in life?

The first step is always self-awareness; without it, we’re flying blind. Try to step back in your mind and observe your reactions without being swept away by them.

Then bring compassion – the simple wish that a being not suffer – to yourself. Researchers have found that self-compassion builds resilience and well-being, plus it helps us treat others better; many studies have shown that people are more able and willing to be patient, reasonable, and kind when their own cup runneth over.

I also like to try to help myself feel the rewards that will come to me from breaking my patterns and acting more skillfully in the future. This helps incline my brain in that direction – sort of like the proverbial rider dangling a carrot in front of a donkey.

Do you have any suggestions for people who commonly experience episodes of extreme pain?

First of all, I’m very sorry that you’re experiencing this. I am not a specialist in this area, so I offer these ideas modestly. What I have experienced myself and seen helpful for others is:

  • Know that you are not dying. The pain is terrible, awful, and yet your core of being is still intact. Try to locate yourself in this center, this core, as a place of refuge. Try to be aware of what is also true about yourself and the world: the things that are not in pain, the things that are working, the things that are good.
  • Have compassion for yourself. Bring a softness and sweetness to yourself, much as you would to a dear friend in extreme pain.
  • Accept the pain. Resisting it just makes it worse. It is here, it is true, even though it is not your preference.
  • See if you can explore it mindfully. Step back from it and observe the different aspects of the pain from a place of open spacious awareness. Try to see it more impersonally, as an intensely unpleasant collection of mental phenomena that are arising due to many causes and not created or owned by a “self.” Notice that awareness itself is untroubled by the pain it holds.
  • If you can, notice the universal characteristics of any experience in the pain: made up of many parts, continually vibrating/pulsing/changing, arising and passing away due to causes, and insubstantial. In effect, any experience, including extreme pain is “empty” of absolute independent existence, and the recognition of this can bring relief and freedom.
  • If you can, try to sense, intuit, or imagine the larger mystery, the unconditioned, the divine that is the ultimate space and basis of mind and matter. In this is our ultimate refuge, no matter how terrible the pain.
Do you have any research reference for the impact of the “hand on heart / belly” practice you use?

It’s a great question, and to my knowledge not one study has been published about this practice, in terms of either its purported psychological or physiological effects. Personally, I try to be careful to claim that there is any such research.

This said, as you may have heard, there is a saying that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Just because there is no study about something does not mean it does not work.

I find the hand on heart practices to be plausibly beneficial; certainly many people report such benefits. And there is much evidence that the touch of others is beneficial . . . so perhaps touching oneself in a region of the body that is so associated with soothing and kindness might have similar benefits. And who knows what might be happening with energy systems that science has not yet identified.

Will you share some insight on how to deal with grief?

It seems that there are several points to balance:

  • Grief has its own organic rhythm, its own waves. We just need to ride them with mindfulness and self-compassion. Over and over. There is no schedule to the end of the waves. After a while they do fade, though. Always.
  • Allowing the falling apart can help. Knowing that all eddies disperse, eventually. Knowing that everything has shadows – many terrible things have happened in the past and will happen in the future; not to justify these or be complacent about them, but to regard and feel them with equanimous wisdom. As the 3rd Zen Patriarch wrote: enlightenment is having no anxiety about imperfection.
  • Self-compassion is so important.
  • Sometimes we just cannot bear the grief, like sometimes we just cannot keep carrying a heavy load. We have to set it down for a while. And instead take a walk in a lovely place, eat some good cookies, take a bubble bath, cuddle with a friend, watch a comedy, pet the cat, read a book, something, anything helpful besides the overwhelming grief. And being a friend to oneself to give oneself these respites and chances for rejuvenation, restoration, replenishment, is vital.
  • We need to open to receiving while releasing. To the natural, non-aversive, non-grasping process of receiving fullness – love, gratitude, awe, profundity, the numinous – while experiencing loss (itself a kind of release, a letting go) and all the other losses that come with it.
  • Especially important is receiving the love, kindness, compassion, inclusion and friendliness of others.
When you say to think of someone who loves you, I think it can be quite painful for people who actually can’t think of anyone. Not everyone has someone who truly loves them!

I really hear you about the risks in trying to think of someone who loves you. That’s why I try to always speak in broader terms of looking for ways to feel cared about, and usually list five aspects of being cared about: being included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved. I stress that it is important to look for mild, everyday moments of being cared about in one of these ways, such as your dog wanting to go for a walk with you, coworkers appreciating your idea in a meeting, or a moment of friendliness with someone.

In other words, even if someone has not been loved or has been but can’t feel it, there are still many other ways to feel cared about – which is indeed very important to us as the most social species on the planet. We need to feel cared about in the psychological sphere as much as we need water in the physiological sphere.

I also suggest that people open to feeling caring, since caring is caring whether it is flowing in or flowing out.

How does an acceptance of behaving badly help?

We can see our part and make corrections going forward while at the same time knowing and feeling that there is goodness in ourselves. In fact, the making of corrections is an expression of that goodness. I’ve made so many mistakes in my own life! We can be openhearted, and have regrets, and also see the causes of events originating in others as well, and feel our own pain . . . . and focus mainly on what we can do each day going forward . . . and take refuge in this, in doing what we can each day.

Can you help shed more light on how we live "our Aspirations" whilst not being selfish?

Check out the Aspiration chapter in Resilient.

In brief, healthy aspirations take into account our duties to others . . . and to ourselves. To simplify, duties are “have to” while aspirations are “want to.” Also check out Mother Nurture and my writings about sharing the load fairly when kids come along.

This said, in many people’s lives (though sadly and often unjustly, there are many exceptions), after handling duties there is still attention and time and often other resources available for personal aspirations – especially when we consider the power of many little moments of practice, and the power of relatively small amounts of time each day – 15 minutes? an hour? – that really add up over months and years.

Additional Resources on Self-Compassion and Self-Worth