Is there any holiday more divisive than Valentine's Day? For many, it's a day to rekindle romance and spend an evening with someone special. For others, it's an excuse to celebrate all the love they feel, whether it's love for friends, family members, or even four-legged companions. And for some, Valentine's Day is just plain difficult—a glaring pink-and-red reminder of all their romantic disappointments.
Whether you recently suffered a breakup, have a one-sided crush, or are experiencing hardcore Tinder fatigue, February 14th is likely to trigger some painful emotions. So, what should we do when everything is not coming up roses on V-Day?
Science has a suggestion: Instead of focusing on romantic relationships, try showing love to yourself.
Psychologists refer to the act of being kind to yourself as "self-compassion" or self-love, and—according to burgeoning research—it's associated with improved mental health and well-being. Numerous studies have linked self-compassion to reduced depression, stress, and disordered eating. Self-compassion may also boost happiness, self-esteem, and even immune function.
But, despite evidence that practicing self-compassion is beneficial, many resist practicing it. Some of us have a deeply rooted belief that negative self-talk is motivating—that it pushes us to work harder, perform better, and achieve our goals. Others worry that self-compassion is a form of weakness and self-indulgence. Many believe it's a selfish act that will undermine motivation.
The reality couldn't be farther from the truth, however. Research shows that being kind to ourselves helps us become stronger, more resilient, and less focused on personal issues. According to a 2011 paper published in Psychological Science, it can even help us overcome adversity. The study indicated that higher levels of self-compassion were related to improved emotional recovery following marital separation and divorce. In another study, veterans who measured higher on the self-compassion scale were less likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
So, how do we learn to practice the invaluable art of self-love and compassion? Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion research and Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, describes self-compassion as a three-step process:
Self-kindness. Chances are, you have a voice inside your head telling you how worthless, dumb, or inadequate you are. Self-kindness is all about replacing harsh self-criticism with kinder, gentler words. Instead of telling yourself, "I'm so unlovable. I'm going to be alone forever," say "I'm lonelier than I'd like to be. Maybe now is the time to find ways to connect with others."
Common humanity. Acknowledge that suffering is a universal experience and not a personal failure. Tell yourself, "Everyone gets lonely sometimes. I'm not the only person who feels down today."
Mindfulness. Observe your negative emotions without focusing on them or suppressing them. Simply tell yourself, "I'm feeling sad and lonely today, and I'm having a hard time."
We understand that self-compassion seems strange and unnatural at first, so we've compiled a few simple exercises to get you started. Go on, send some of that loving-kindness your way this V-Day:
Think about a time a friend came to you for help after failing or getting rejected. How did you respond to them? What words did you choose? What tone of voice did you use when speaking with them?
Now, think of a similar situation in which you were struggling, and compare your two answers. Were you as kind to yourself as you were to your friend?
Chances are, you'd never talk to a friend the way your inner voice speaks to you.
It feels good to receive a warm hug or comforting touch when you're upset, right? While this exercise might seem silly, trying giving yourself a soothing touch next time you feel down. Place one hand over your heart, hug or gently rock your body, or simply hold your hands together in your lap.
According to Dr. Neff, "research indicates that physical touch releases oxytocin provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions and calms cardiovascular stress."
When you find yourself caught in a barrage of self-criticism, close your eyes, and acknowledge your suffering. Say to yourself, "I feel sad. This is a difficult situation, and I'm having a hard time." Then, remind yourself that everyone struggles. Say, "Sadness is part of life. Everyone feels this way sometimes. I'm not alone."
Now, replace your negative self-talk with words of kindness. "May I be kind to myself. May I forgive myself. May I be strong. May I accept myself as I am."
If you're struggling with self-compassion, take some time to write yourself a short, encouraging letter. Here's how:
Save the letter, and come back to it when you need a reminder to be self-compassionate.