Overcome Holiday Stress With Self-Compassion

Holiday gatherings can be filled with love and laughter. They can also be like minefields. Stepping into a conversationally wrong space can blow up a picture-perfect gathering in mere seconds. Trying to control what others say and do isn’t usually helpful. Likewise, stewing in silence only serves to perpetuate your discomfort and that of others.

Cultivating self-compassion, however, can help you better manage uncomfortable situations and reduce your stress.

“Practicing self-compassion helps us hold ourselves with more understanding, kindness, and courage when we face challenging moments,” says mindfulness meditation teacher Natalie Bell of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Practice is at the heart of Bell’s message, as is the understanding that Americans aren’t typically born with overwhelming amounts of self-compassion. In fact, it’s often quite the contrary. For example, if you’re the one who catalyzed an argument, you might later feel guilty for creating a scene or blame others for starting it. That leaves compassion at the wayside. But, if a friend is similarly struggling, most people tend to offer words of comfort, support, and encouragement. In short, we are much harder on ourselves than others. And, it’s counterproductive to health to constantly criticize yourself.

“Self-compassion trains you to have an inner ally instead of always listening to your inner critic.” says Bell. “It’s never too late to learn the skills of self-compassion. It’s especially important to compassionately befriend ourselves as we age because we go through so many changes, health issues, relationships, loss, and other challenges. When we are challenged we are typically hard on ourselves, so we need the strength and resilience self-compassion can give us to maintain an inner state of wellbeing.”

Introducing Mindful Self-Compassion

Online and in the UCLA area, Bell teaches eight-week Mindfulness Self-Compassion (MSC) courses, which were developed by researcher Kristen Neff and psychologist Chris Germer. MSC defines three essential elements as key to understanding and practicing self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. These three elements interlock, one influencing the other in a spiral that strengthens self-compassion and the ability to extend compassion to others. In detail:

Mindfulness is the awareness to be conscious of each moment exactly as it is and accept your true feelings in the moment (instead of berating yourself for them).

Common humanity is knowing that we are all connected, and that we are all flawed. Everyone makes mistakes, experiences failures, and falls on hard times. It’s part of the human condition.

Self-kindness is the capacity to be as kind to yourself as you would be to a struggling friend. Instead of angry self-talk, you offer yourself kind, soothing words of support.

A Breath for You and a Breath for Me

MSC incorporates the loving kindness practice from Buddhism (see side box). The idea is to silently say words to yourself that can help create calm in difficult times, such as when someone’s politics clashes with your own. Bell suggests that when you come up against these types of conflicts that you take a calming breath for yourself and then silently offer another calming breath for the person who is irritating you. You can continue this practice, breathing in compassion for yourself and breathing out compassion for the other, in the midst of family gatherings.

Self-Compassion for Better Health

Contrary to what many people may think, self-compassion is not selfish, self-indulgent, or a pity-party. It’s a way to become more accepting of yourself and the world as it is. According to research, those who do are happier, more self-confident, better at relationships, and experience better overall health.

Bell (www.nataliebell.com) offers online and live MSC courses as well as free guided meditations.


Next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation, Bell suggests the following self-compassion break from the MSC course to defuse the situation.

Mindfulness: Become aware when you are struggling and name it for what it is (e.g., “I’m stressed.” “This is hard.”)

➥ Common humanity: Remember others probably feel similarly in the same circumstances. You are not alone, and not the only one with such emotions.

Self-Kindness: Offer yourself a kind response by saying something comforting and supportive (e.g., “I’m right here for you.” “May I be kind to myself.”)

This is an MSC-edited example of the loving-kindness Buddhist prayer:

  • May all sentient beings enjoy happiness.
  • May we be free of suffering.
  • May we feel connected.
  • May we feel peaceful.

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