How to Shift Out Of Self-Judgment Using Mindful Self-Compassion

This simple mindfulness practice helps to create a unified presence for ourselves and others.

When I first heard the term “self-compassion”, it sounded a bit squishy. Yet the more I read about this proven pathway to stress reduction, the more intrigued I became. Now as I’m writing “Breath into Breakthrough” and diving deep into the mind-body connection, I’ve learned this work applies to most people during times of change.

Change creates anxiety, and anxiety fuels your subconscious defense mechanism, often resulting in self-blame or criticism. The more I learn, the more I recognize how powerful this practice is. Especially when you find yourself stuck in overthinking,

Like today, when I sat through a Compassion in a Therapy workshop led by Tara Brach, a pioneer in self-compassion theory. It ended right before I was scheduled for my weekly Toastmasters meeting, where I had been asked to participate in a speech contest.

With such short notice, I wasn’t able to commit much time to prepare for the contest. So I told myself I’d show up, do my best, and have fun, without getting attached to the results.

That was before I came in 3rd out of 3 contestants. Just 90 minutes after the Self Compassion training, my last-minute contest ranking immediately shot to a place of self-judgment!

“Am I unlikeable? I must be, I’m always coming in last at Toastmasters. Why am I putting myself through this anyway?” All flooded in as self-doubt clouded my judgment and I began adding every memory of failures past to a growing mental list.

I was swirling in self-pity for a full 15 minutes before I was able to step back and say to myself, put down the baguette, and find a healthier way to feel better. Since I still had the morning self-compassion training queued, I started to open it when I suddenly got a message from a friend that pulled me out of my funk. It was a random, sweet check-in that snapped me back into perspective.

And from there I was able to step back and appreciate what just happened! It was a perfect life lesson. I got the opportunity to apply the self-compassion process in real time. So the failed contest became a doorway for insight and even a bit of humor. Which was the best use of an hour I could have asked for.

I sat down to rewatch the training. As Dr. Brach talked the audience through the process of getting that pain out – recognizing our judgment as masking a more vulnerable feeling, a place of hurt or rejection, I suddenly got it.

I was able to apply the self-compassion process to understand my rush into judgment, which is my go-to stress response. Whether I was critically judging myself or someone else, I realized this auto-reaction was a habit pattern masking something deeper.

When we’re able to be present and notice situations that stress or distress us, we’re able to investigate, what is the pain underneath our immediate reaction. For me it was jealousy. And as I moved through the process and stayed with the difficult feelings I was able to open up to them. I could accept that I felt something I was embarrassed by, there was shame at the root.

I was able to see that underneath the jealousy was a fear of being invisible, of being irrelevant. As a middle-aged woman, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. And I know it’s just a feeling, one that I can choose whether to make true. I also know it’s human to compare ourselves with others and if we’re not intentional, to feel jealous. It’s not a cause for shame, nor does it make you a bad person.

Now that you’re aware of your thought patterns and what drives them, when those thoughts come up you can recognize them, then let them go.

We’re so often in conditioned minds, where we’ve developed habit patterns that let us avoid doing things that make us feel vulnerable. To see these patterns requires mindful awareness, presence, and intentionality.

Dr. Brach has developed a self-compassion practice around the acronym RAIN, which stands for:

Recognize what is happening;

Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;

Investigate with interest and care;

Nurture with self-compassion.

Ultimately, as in so many mindfulness practices, self-compassion is about letting go of harmful hidden beliefs. Yet it also requires meeting that painful place with compassion and responding to it in the most nurturing way possible.

When you can let go of past judgment, when you can truly offer yourself and accept compassion, you reach a new state of awareness. You have to be present and self-aware just to do it! When we bring presence and compassion inward we create an embodied presence for ourselves and others. We can extend grace and kindness both inward and out and in the process become that much stronger.

Dr. Brach also acknowledges that when you’re struggling, when you’re been dealing with stress or self-doubt for a long period of time, it’s not easy to be there for yourself. In fact, sometimes even for advanced practitioners, it isn’t possible.

During those times, it’s important to find a bridge to self-compassion. When you’re unable to be there for yourself, find a source outside yourself, whether that’s through a greater energy source, another person, or your religious beliefs. How can you find solace; from who or what, and how would you best be supported?

There is a vulnerability in this practice as you allow yourself to ask for help. Some people worry this “lets them off the hook” or undermines their drive in some way. Yet instead of weakening us, being vulnerable allows us to bring kindness to suffering while building our resolve and resilience in the process. As Dr. Brach puts it “soft front, strong back.”

My personal post-contest nurturing involved reminding myself that my passion for my work is my real driving force, not being popular at Toastmasters. And recognizing that seeing both the lesson and the humor in things, as I did in myself, is another pathway to compassion.

This timely reminder may not happen when you’re in the thick of your regular response pattern, the one you’re ready to change. When you’re too triggered to reframe or recognize the humor, the best approach is through breathing practice. Numerous studies confirm the effect of systematic deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing on the nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing lets you downregulate your stress level and slow down your thoughts, making way for new perspectives.

Learning new thought patterns is a process. The more you practice, the more you’ll begin to change outdated, negative patterns. So start where you’re at. Learning to bring mindfulness and compassion inward lets us create an embodied presence for ourselves and the world.

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