From Self-Judgement to Self-Compassion

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"Leaves can change and so can we." Leaves changing along the Mississippi River one September morning. By Emily PG Erickson
Leaves can change, and so can we.

Mindfulness is great. Mostly. But being aware of your thoughts can be downright painful, especially when they’re full of self-judgement. Self-compassion can help.

Let me back up: I’m a meditator. I’ve been practicing off and on since 2007. The tradition I practice in is Theravada Buddhism, which I encountered in northeast Thailand when I studied abroad there in college. One branch of Theravada Buddhism is Vipassana, which also also has a robust U.S. following under the brand Insight Meditation, thanks to the efforts of expert American teachers including Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Tara Brach.

In the insight meditation tradition, one common mindfulness practice is mental noting. It goes like this: Be still and focus on something neutral like your breath. When your mind inevitably wanders, observe that with a short label, and return to your breath. For instance, I should add flax seeds to the grocery list becomes “planning.” I should spend more time one-on-one with each of my kids becomes “judging.” I’m terrible at writing headlines becomes “judging.”

Recently, this noting practice landed me in a painful mental loop. Because after a string of “judging,” “judging,” “judging,” it’s only natural for me to think: I’m so judgmental. Which, of course, gets noted with “judging,” again. Argh!

At the same time, inspired by the work of psychologist Kristin Neff, PhD, I’ve been contemplating the usefulness of self-compassion — and its relative absence in my internal monologue.

In Neff’s terrific episode of Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris, she makes a number of compelling points. One is that if you’re berating yourself to avoid complacency and do better, you’ve got it all wrong. After all, do kids rise to the occasion more when you’ve criticized and shamed them or when you give constructive support?

Neff’s insight struck a chord, but I felt stuck about how to incorporate it. Frankly, self-compassion feels fake. I just don’t trust kindness to myself.

On the other hand, while, to me, self-compassion is akin to writing with the wrong hand, compassion is more like breathing (most of the time). I care about animals. I care about people. I care about the planet. When someone or something suffers — is in pain, is unhappy — my instinct is to care.

Except when it comes to me.

Judging. Judging. Judging. That’s what I do to myself all the time. And it hurts. It’s cruel. It makes me feel terrible and tense and sad and stuck.

In other words, I realized: It’s suffering. Judging is suffering. And I care about suffering. I care.

This insight has been world-shifting for me. Now, when I notice self-judgment, I don’t label it judgment. I note it as “suffering.” This has naturally expanded to the compassionate observation: “This is suffering. I care about suffering.”

The way these phrases dropped into my brain fully formed tells me I’ve almost certainly heard them before, probably from more than one meditation teacher. But I’d never heard them heard them, if you know what I mean. When I did, wow. I felt a deep loosening. An opening up. I do care. Because when I understand there is suffering, I care. It’s like breathing.

“This is suffering. I care about suffering.”

These seven words have been a revelation.

For one, the words give me a little breathing room. Instead of seeing judgemental thoughts as describing a problem I have to solve, I am oriented to the emotional impact of those thoughts. That helps me address the pain more directly and immediately – with caring and compassion. No further planning or judging is required. Just opening my heart to what is occurring right now, in the present moment. 

Another benefit of the suffering label is that it helps me feel connected instead of separated. I am not uniquely terrible and judgemental. I am a creature who sometimes suffers, just like everyone else. 

What are the long-term benefits of this practice? I don’t know yet. I’m reporting to you from the trenches, where I’ve been using this new-to-me self-compassion tool to interrupt the moment of self-recrimination, like speed bumps for runaway self-judgment. 

What I can tell you is that, right now, in this moment, it helps. 

Try this: When you are stuck in a painful mental loop, unlock the power of self-compassion by saying: "This is suffering. I care about suffering." @emilypgerickson

A version of this story also appeared on Medium

Books I Think You’ll Like

Easy Beauty: A Memoir by Chloe Cooper Jones in Emily P.G. Erickson's Bookshop

Memoir is a hard genre, and Chloé Cooper Jones nails it with Easy Beauty: A Memoir. Many memoirists seem to get stuck on telling you what happened, but that’s not usually the more interesting part of hearing someone else’s story, at least for me. I want to understand what was it, like — really — to experience what happened. Cooper Jones does this beautifully and vulnerably, deploying lyric prose and staying searingly close to her experience — as a disabled person, an academic, a mother, and more. A philosopher by training, her style is contemplative and unafraid of complexity. I listened to the audio version (which Cooper Jones narrates) and didn’t want to say goodbye to her company at the book’s end.

We Are A Haunting: A Novel by Tyriek White in Emily P.G. Erickson's Bookshop

This one is another gem I gathered at The Loft Literary Center’s Wordplay Festival: We Are A Haunting: A Novel by Tyriek White. White was at the same session as Idra Novey (whose novel Take What You Need: A Novel,  I recommended last month). Like Novey, White writes a fictional story set in a place like where he grew up (in White’s case, NYC-area projects). The result is an immersive debut novel that’s billed as a supernatural family saga. But as someone who rarely likes magic in my books, I still loved this one. I think it’s because of its deeply real emotional through-line.

My Year Abroad: A Novel by Chang Rae-Lee in Emily P.G. Erickson's Bookshop

My Year Abroad: A Novel by Chang Rae-Lee is super duper weird. It’s sprawling and complicated and grotesque and I’m not sure I like any of the characters and I was totally hooked while I read it and keep thinking about it now that I’m done. If you liked Jen Begin’s Big Swiss or Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I bet you’ll like this one too.

Check out my Bookshop here for more excellent reads!

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Published by Emily P.G. Erickson

Emily P.G. Erickson is a freelance writer specializing in mental health and parenting. She has written for popular digital publications, including Everyday Health, Health, The New York Times, Parents, Romper, Verywell Mind, WIRED, and more. Emily is a professional member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). Previously, Emily researched PTSD for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and earned a master's in psychology. You can find the latest from Emily at

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