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  • Writer's pictureGabriella Hsu

The Strengths of Self-Care and Self-Compassion


Picture this: it’s dark outside and you’re finally feeling like you might be rested. You think to yourself: just ten more minutes! But just as you’re dozing off, your alarm begins to ring and you jump out of bed and shuffle into the shower. As you brush your teeth, you check the time--it’s only 6:30 in the morning and you already feel behind! You struggle to keep your eyes open as you drive to work, sipping on your second cup of coffee. You brace yourself for a long day of projects, meetings, lunch and your long commute to and from work. When you get home, you dig some leftovers out of the fridge unwind to some Netflix, shower and throw yourself (finally!) into bed. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. But though we’ve normalized this rigorous behavior, it doesn’t hold up for long. Pretty soon, we’ll begin to feel burnt out, overworked and exhausted. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Practicing self-care and self-compassion can help us to stay afloat and even thrive, transforming our daily grind into a process of self-exploration and fulfillment.

The Basics of Self-Care

We practice self-care properly when we prioritize “providing adequate attention to [our] own physical and psychological wellness,” when we learn to successfully integrate our ambitions, responsibilities and goals with our needs and desires. This can seem to be a difficult task in our modern world, but the building blocks of self-care are quite simple.

At its core, self-care has to do with meeting our daily needs. When we feel that we are eating healthily, exercising regularly, engaging with loved ones and those of like-minds, when we feel rested and physically strong, we feel that our needs are met and our overall well-being is boosted. We feel competent, happy and supported. It is only from this place that we feel able to identify and tackle our deeper values and goals with confidence.

We recently spoke about discovering our values and orienting ourselves towards goals which matter most to us. Values are often variable from person to person, and self-care is no different. Properly identifying our values is a great way to start defining what self-care means for us. Once we identify our values--what matters to us, the “why” behind what we do--we can begin to prioritize our values and dedicate time to enriching activities which light us up. We can seek out more ambitious self-care options which bring us back to ourselves, like going for a hike, embarking on a new creative project, or strengthening our bonds with our local community.

It is also important to find time to de-stress and decompress. Many people find that practices such as meditation, yin yoga or even a daily walking routines help them to quiet their minds and regroup. Setting aside time every day for quiet reflection or meditation has been shown to improve memory, attention and emotional regulation--all of this from only ten minutes a day!

Exercise and Nutrition

Common experience shows us how important a consistent exercise routine is for our overall physical and mental wellbeing. We often notice, too, that when we engage in physical exercise, we feel inspired to tackle big projects, seek out new experiences and stick to new resolutions. Studies have lately shown why this is so. Physical exercise engages the hippocampus and cerebral ventricles and increases brain volume in the prefrontal and temporal cortices. Neurogenesis, lately thought to reduce negative effects of trauma and stress, is boosted in the hippocampus when we exercise. Meanwhile, greater activity in the prefrontal cortex likely boosts executive function, improving self-direction and control, decision-making and self-direction towards one’s goals. Further, regular physical exercise has been seen to boost the growth of new neural pathways in the brain, improving memory and attentiveness, as well as helping the brain to withstand degeneration, improve academic achievements, and manage depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Recent studies have also shown the benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Factors such as ethnicity and cultural background, dietary restrictions and exercise regime will affect nutrition from person to person. Nonetheless, de-emphasizing the abundance of animal products in one’s diet likely lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and aids in weight loss and general longevity.

Self-Compassion, the Sister to Self-Care

Self-care practiced properly necessarily brings us to the concept of self-compassion. Each of these practices is truly effective when we proceed from a place of deliberate, purposeful activity, in other words, from persistent mindfulness. Self-care asks us to assess our values and self-compassion asks us to see ourselves as one of our top priorities.

According to Kristin Neff, PH.D., self-care invites us to “turn towards the suffering” which we sense in ourselves. To view ourselves with the same compassion and patience that we often have in abundance for others, though rarely (if ever) for ourselves. In some ways, you might view self-compassion as both the cornerstone and the capstone of self-care: when we feel at our best, we are most able to view ourselves with kindness and love--and yet in order to feel our best, we must always act from a sense of appreciation for ourselves. For those of us who struggle with self-compassion, it may be helpful to view it as merely an extension of the love that we have for those closest to us. With patience and practice, we can allow our love for others to teach us how to better love ourselves.

[This post was originally a part of our ongoing newsletter series—Leaning on Your Strengths with Eugenie Lewis]

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