Years ago, after a long day of rehearsals, the studio owner and I stayed to catch up on lesson plans. As I looked in the mirror, I began criticizing everything wrong with me and my body. I didn’t even realize I was saying the thoughts out loud until I heard a gentle, “Ash, do you hear yourself? Do you hear how you’re talking about yourself?”. I was in my early 20s and a relatively new dance educator. But self-criticism had long been part of my life. Growing up as a competitive dancer, picking myself apart felt second nature. I didn’t know there was any other way to talk to myself.
Looking back, I’m so grateful for that moment when the studio owner, also a dear friend and mentor, kindly brought it to my attention. Hearing it from an outside perspective made me pause and reflective how negative my self-talk was. Slowly, I started noticing my self-criticism and its effects. I realized how low my self-worth was and began searching for a different way to treat myself.
Eventually, I came across Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion. Honestly, at first, I was a bit resistant. Wouldn’t I become lazy and complacent without self-criticism? Didn’t I need it to keep myself in line and reach my goals? But it turns out self-criticism can come with some severe costs, such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, to name a few (Shahar, 2017).
How To Practice Self Compassion
Self-compassion, on the other hand, has several benefits for physical and mental health. In addition to being an alternative to self-criticism, the research on self-compassion shows that it’s associated with personal initiative, happiness, optimism, curiosity, exploration, and wisdom (Firestone, 2016). Check out this excellent infographic for more on the benefits of self-compassion.
Self-compassion means treating yourself with understanding and kindness, especially when you mess up or are facing challenges, as a wise and caring friend would. Dr. Kristin Neff has identified the three components of self-compassion as:
Self-kindness instead of self-judgment
Common humanity instead of isolation
Mindfulness instead of over-identification (Neff, 2020).
Self-compassion is a practice. For me, I’ve found it most helpful to not only practice it in the moment when I’m being harsh with myself but also do intentional self-compassion exercises. Here are two ways you can practice self-compassion, developed by Dr. Neff:
Self-Compassion Break: This is a great exercise to schedule intentionally throughout your week or use when you’re being hard on yourself or struggling. If it feels safe and comfortable, place your hands on your heart, or use any other self-soothing touch, like hugging yourself or holding your face in your hands. Acknowledge your current stress, pain, or suffering by telling yourself, "this is hard" or "this hurts." Remind yourself of your shared humanity by telling yourself, "I'm not alone in my pain. Others feel this too". Ask yourself, what words of kindness do you need to hear right now? This could be "may I be kind to myself" or "I can do hard things." Whatever feels comforting. Take a minute to sit in this self-compassion break, knowing you can come back to it anytime you need. Here’s an Instagram Reel Self-Compassion Break I made if you want a guide. And here’s the link to Dr. Neff’s instructions for this exercise (Neff, 2015).
Letter to yourself: Think about the things you most often judge or criticize yourself for. Now, write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an imaginary best friend and what they would say about these things. This imaginary friend is wise and caring. They see you as a human, with all your strengths and weakness. Write about the understanding and comfort they would offer you. What wisdom or advice would they give you? What would they say about your insecurities? Come back to this letter anytime you need to practice self-compassion. Click here for Dr. Neff’s full instructions for this exercise (Neff, 2015).
Next time you notice negative self-talk or self-criticism, pause. Then ask yourself, “what would I say to a friend in this situation? What words of kindness and understanding would I give them?” Then say those things to yourself. And remember, it’s a practice!
You’ve got this. And I’m here to support you however you need. If you’re interested in my work, head to my website. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.
Ashley Mowrey is a former competitive dancer, dance educator, and competition company director. Now as a Mindset Coach, she helps dancers build confidence and mental strength so they can shine on and off of the stage. Ashley works with dancers through 1-1 virtual coaching as well as studio and team workshops. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is an Associate Certified Coach through the International Coaching Federation, a Whole Person Certified Coach and Trauma-Informed Certified Coach, a Certified Positive Psychology Coach, and a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program. Ashley’s a specialist for Doctors for Dancers, and a blog contributor for Apolla Performance. You can also see her on tour with Embody Dance Conference, where she leads Mindset Skills Seminars for all ages, including parents and teachers.