If you’re like most pregnant women, you probably experience self-critical thoughts popping up every day. “I’m not being healthy enough for my baby.” “I need to do more at work to prove pregnancy isn’t slowing me down.” “I’m nowhere close to being prepared, how can I expect to be a good mother?”
New experiences can bring about a wide range of worries. Unfortunately, if these thoughts take over, it can lead to pregnancy or postpartum depression and anxiety.
One way to combat these emotions is through self-compassion. In this post, we’ll explain what exactly that is, the research behind it and 6 exercises you can practice.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion means having an understanding and acceptance of yourself, even when you’re going through hard times, such as feeling like you’re a failure or inadequate. While it may sound simple, extending compassion to yourself can be difficult in practice.
For example, think about a child who makes a mistake and feels like they’ve failed. You’ll probably express care, telling them it’s okay because people make mistakes. However, when you make a mistake, you’re probably more critical and harsh on yourself.
Your natural reaction maybe, “I’m so stupid, how could I make that mistake? I should know better and now everything is ruined.” Instead, a self-compassionate reaction may be, “This is really difficult, but it’s only human to make mistakes. How can I care for myself right now?”
According to Kristin Neff, a pioneering researcher on the topic, there are 3 main elements to self-compassion:
- Self-kindness NOT self-judgment— Instead of criticizing yourself, realize that the reality is everyone is imperfect and sometimes falls short. Reminding yourself this brings a sense of understanding and warmth.
- Common humanity NOT isolation— Recognize you’re not alone in your suffering or feelings of inadequacy. The human race is imperfect and this feeling is a part of the human experience.
- Mindfulness NOT over-identification— Take a balanced approach to your emotions. Instead of ignoring, over-identifying or amplifying them, use mindfulness. Simply observe your thoughts or feelings, accepting them and letting them pass through.
Self-Compassion and Pregnancy
Self-compassion is a useful skill for anyone to learn at any stage in life. But in pregnancy, it can be especially helpful during the difficult times. If it’s your first time pregnant, everything is new to you and you’re bound to make mistakes. Even if you already have children, pregnancy brings new sets of emotions and challenges each time.
For example, you may be harsh on yourself for:
- Forgetting to take your prenatal vitamin.
- Not eating all the “proper” foods during pregnancy.
- Someone’s comments shaming you about doing or not doing the pregnancy dos and don’ts.
- Having an outburst when pregnancy mood swings take over.
- Feeling like you aren’t being productive enough at work.
- Taking time off work for appointments.
- Not being able to keep up with household chores.
- Not reading pregnancy books as quickly as you think you should be.
You may think being self-critical will prevent the mistakes from happening again, but it’s more likely to bring about negative emotions, making you feel worse in the long run. Having self-compassion can help you see the situation realistically and move forward in a positive way.
Research on Self-Compassion
If you think self-compassion seems corny or cheesy, this section is for you. Numerous studies have backed up its effectiveness.
Here’s a few findings from recent research:
- Self-compassion is linked with less depression and anxiety.
- It’s also linked with greater life satisfaction and social connectedness.
- Those with self-compassion ruminate less (running through a thought or experience over and over in your head).
- Lowers cortisol levels (a stress hormone).
- People who practice the skill are less likely to suppress unwanted thoughts and more likely to acknowledge them.
- Promotes sticking to healthy habits, such as diet, exercise, smoking reduction, etc.
- When compared to self-esteem, self-compassion motivated people to change, try more and avoid past mistakes.
There’s also research to support the importance of self-compassion during pregnancy specifically. Multiple studies show that mindfulness and self-compassion can protect a pregnant woman against psychological distress (ex. depression and anxiety). Researchers found that the most effective aspects were those surrounding self-kindness and the non-judgment of experience.
Another study asked pregnant and postpartum women to fill out a questionnaire about their current experience and history of anxiety and depression and self-compassion. Researchers found that women with higher current or past anxiety and depression levels also had less self-compassion. The authors note that self-compassion may be helpful in the maintenance and treatment of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
Having trouble sleeping during pregnancy? Good news! Self-compassion may help you with that, too. Intuitively, this makes sense. If you have less self-critical thoughts, there’s less worries to keep you awake. A 2016 study suggested that developing self-compassion improved sleep and reduced the insomnia symptoms of pregnant women.
6 Exercises to Practice Self-Compassion During Pregnancy
Now that you know the variety of benefits practicing self-compassion can bring, let’s look at a few exercises you can try.
#1 How Would a Friend Treat You?
When you’re in a moment of self-hate or consumed in thoughts about something you did wrong, pause.
- If a friend did the same thing, what kind words would you tell them?
- How does that compare to how you’re treating yourself right now?
- If there’s a difference, try to project the kinder words and advice onto yourself.
- If you have extra time, it can be helpful to write down these observations.
#2 Self-Compassion in 3 Thoughts
Let’s say you’re in your third trimester and it’s hitting you that you haven’t even read half of your baby books yet. You not only feel unproductive, but you have thoughts about becoming a bad mother. Instead of repeating your thoughts, follow these steps:
- Recognize the difficulty:“Pregnancy is stressful” or “I’m going through something new and it’s overwhelming.”
- Recognize the humanity:“Everyone struggles” or “other pregnant women feel this way.”
- Be kind to yourself:“I’m doing the best I can” or “I’m learning to accept myself” or “I forgive myself for that.”
#3 Write a Self-Compassion Letter to Yourself
In one study, participants were asked to write a letter to themselves every day for a week. Researchers found it increased their happiness levels for up to six months. Here’s how you can try the experiment yourself:
- Write a paragraph about what’s making you feel bad about yourself or not good enough. What feelings do those thoughts bring?
- Then, imagine you have a compassionate, loving, non-judgmental and kind friend. They know everything about you and your situation. Now, write a letter to yourself from their perspective. What would they tell you about your “inadequacy”? What would they encourage you to think about or feel?
#4 Keep a Self-Compassion Journal
In the evening, review your day and write down any experience you feel guilty for or that made you feel not good enough. For each experience, write a few sentences using the steps in the “Self-Compassion in 3 Thoughts” exercise above.
- For example, “I raised my voice at the cashier when she couldn’t find the price tag.”
- Can turn into: “I was upset and annoyed because I’m having pregnancy mood swings and I was also really tired and just wanted to get home. Everyone makes mistakes and can be rude sometimes, it doesn’t make them a bad person. I’m doing the best I can, and I forgive myself for acting that way.”
#5 Use Guided Meditations
Meditations can help walk you through your thoughts and emotions in a way that’s non-judgmental. Here are a few offered by Kristin Neff:
- Compassionate Body Scan
- Loving-Kindness Meditation
- Self-Compassion/Loving-Kindness Meditation
- Noting Your Emotions
- Self-Compassion Break
#6 Monitor Your Self-Talk
Self-talk is the way we speak to ourselves inside our heads. When a difficult situation arises, make it a point to pay attention to your thoughts. Although it can be difficult to remember at first, monitoring can become a habit with time.
- What are you saying to yourself? What words and phrases are you using? (ex. “I’m such an idiot.”)
- Reframe the thought using reality and self-kindness (“Although you shouldn’t have acted like that, it happened because you’re feeling stressed out. Maybe taking a walk to cool off would be helpful.”)
Although self-compassion may sound cheesy, there’s research to back the practice. Exercising the skill can protect you from pregnancy depression and anxiety. It can also help you sleep better and motivate you to keep any new, healthy habits.
Are you practicing self-compassion during pregnancy? If so, comment any tips you have below. If you have any pregnant or mother friends, spread the love by sending them this post!
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