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Practicing self-compassion can transform your college experience. Here’s how to do it. 

by Jael Goldfine

February 26, 2024

“Be gentle with yourself.” “Go easy on yourself.” “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”  

You’ve probably heard these words of encouragement before, maybe so many times that they make you roll your eyes. As worn out as this kind of advice can sound, it’s also extremely important.

“Self-compassion, or our ability to accept and love ourselves even when we are imperfect, is the answer to most mental health symptoms,” says Rebecca Stone, psychotherapist and founder of Brooklyn Somatic Therapy

Self-compassion is absolutely essential in college, a time when it’s easy to be especially hard on yourself. As a student, it’s nearly impossible not to tie your self-worth to achievements, hold yourself to impossible standards, or constantly feel like a failure or imposter.  

“So many of us get the message that we have to be perfect or extra special to be worthy of love and validation. That belief needs to be challenged and healed,” says Stone. 

The good news is, if you put in the work to learn self-compassion in college, it can benefit you long into the future.  

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“I’ve worked with college students for years. I know that the mental and emotional habits you form in college solidify and stick,” psychotherapist Sadaf Siddiqi tells Chegg. “How you talk to yourself and treat yourself in college will impact your life and the way you function afterward.” 

So, if you can get past the mushy clichés and figure out how to practice self-compassion when you’re young, you can save yourself heartache for years to come. Here are a few tools and practices to start on the road to being a little kinder to yourself.  

Care for your needs without comparison 

When it comes to self-compassion, Siddiqi advises “literally 100%” of her clients to ask themselves these two questions: How do I feel? What do I need? 

Okay, sounds pretty straightforward — but then you have to give yourself what you need without judgment or comparison.  

“Self-compassion involves two steps,” says Siddiqi. One: Figure out how you are currently doing or what you are currently struggling with. Two: Show yourself empathy by trying to meet your own needs. So often, when we need something — reassurance, validation, comfort, rest, whatever — we shame ourselves and call ourselves needy or weak or lazy.”  

You probably know, intellectually, that there’s nothing wrong with having needs and imperfections. You’d never make fun of a friend for feeling burnt out by college or having difficulty with a particular class. But often, we punish ourselves for struggling — especially when it seems like other people are having an easier time. 

“When you shame yourself in comparison to others, you’re doing yourself a disservice because your needs are unique to you,” says Siddiqi. “That’s the least compassionate thing you can do.”  

Remember, everyone needs a different amount of study time for that exam. More (or less!) rest to recover from something stressful or painful. Different levels of time alone or socializing with friends.  

“Self-compassion is saying: I need this, and it’s okay for me to need this, and then asking yourself how to meet that need,” says Siddiqi.

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Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend

We say incredibly cruel things to ourselves — things we would never say to a friend.

A handy trick for when you’re being overly self-critical is to imagine saying those same things to someone else you love.

   

You’ll hopefully hear how ridiculous, mean and just plain wrong your internal voice is. And pretending you’re talking to a friend can help you figure out what to say instead: If you don’t do well on this test, that will be a bummer, but you’ve had a busy semester and are doing your best. Neither the test nor the class will ultimately matter that much in the grand scheme of your life. So don’t let them reflect your self-worth.

 

Stone suggests a similar version of the same exercise, which involves talking to yourself as a child.  

“Imagine seeing her, holding her on your lap, and saying, ‘You’re enough just the way you are,” she says. “‘I don’t need you to be perfect. You are lovable no matter what, even when you make mistakes.’” 

Just as you could for your best friend, you can probably muster up some compassion for the 9-year-old version of yourself, even if you can’t for present-day you. Write a little kindness monologue like the above, directed at your childhood self or best friend, and keep it somewhere handy. Try to say it aloud or think about it once a day — even when you feel good. Before long, you might just start to believe it.  

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Talk back to your critical internal voice  

You can take a more defensive approach. Next time you start beating yourself up, talk back to your internal self-monologue.   

“Try saying: ‘I can’t let you talk to me like that,’” says Stone. “I know you’re trying to help me. But when you’re this critical and verbally abusive, it doesn’t help me, so we need to reframe.’” 

It’s not about being angry with yourself for being critical. It’s about becoming your own voice of reason and rationality. When your inner voice says, “You’re an idiot who’s going to fail this test,” try identifying what the monologue is really about (i.e., that you’re scared about this test) and responding with a rational counter-argument about what you know to be true: “This is a big test, and I’m nervous, as many of my classmates are. I’ve worked hard all semester, and I will do my best and study as much as possible before tomorrow.” 

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