Practicing Self Compassion for Physicians

Do you have an overactive inner critic?

A little (or maybe not-so-little) voice in your head that is eager to pounce on any misstep you make, amplify any mistake, berate you mercilessly for being less than perfect?

These vicious self-judgments come with a high price, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety, burnout, and other stress reactions.

Fortunately, you have the power to counter this critic through the practice of self-compassion. There is a significant body of research supporting the beneficial impact of self-compassion on the lives and wellbeing of physicians. As the word suggests, self-compassion is compassion turned in towards yourself. You want to extend the same gentle understanding to yourself that you would extend to a loved one. 

There are a number of practices that can be helpful in developing self-compassion. You should remind yourself that these are practices and not one-and-done interventions. You can’t expect results from one day of physical exercise; one day of psychological exercise is similarly ineffective.

In my practice, I have seen people struggle with embracing self-compassion when they lack compassion for themselves even in this journey. You do not need to listen to 100 podcasts on self-compassion. You do not need to read 100 books. You do not need to be self-compassionate every single time right away or conclude that you’re just no good at self-compassion either.

I want to talk today about one of the ways in which you can increase your self-compassion over time, changing negative self-talk. Self-talk is the messages we give ourselves throughout our daily lives, our internal monologue. 

The first step in changing self-talk is noticing it. Take some time to become aware of your own self-talk. You really want to get to know your critic so slow down and notice exactly what you say to yourself in times of uncertainty or challenge. Note not only the words you use to yourself, but your overall tone. You can simply think through these patterns or, if you prefer, write them down. If you’re having trouble getting started, you can recognize the activities of your inner critic by some of the following signs:

  • Using global language (“you always screw up, you never do anything right, etc.)
  • Name-calling
  • Extreme self-censure over small mistakes.

When you have a sense of your baseline self-talk, you can begin the work to change it. You want to have a more compassionate response to yourself without being insincere. “You always do everything right” is not a self-compassionate response – it’s a fallacy.

Notice also that you want to replace negative self-talk with a more self-compassionate response without getting into an internal argument. Consider the following example:

Situation: You drop your pen.

Negative self-talk: “I’m such a clumsy idiot.”

Ineffective thought substitution: “You’re not an idiot.”

In this example, you are engaging with your inner critic in a way that continues to strengthen that critic; you are remaining focused on your presumed idiocy. What you want to do instead is to respond to that critic in a way that makes you feel seen and supported. This will be unique to you, but you can think about what you would say to a close friend or what you would want a close friend to say to you.

Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion work, discusses changing critical self-talk as one of a number of self-compassion exercises on her website, If you are interested in trying more, other exercises include:

  • How would you treat a friend?
  • Self-compassion break
  • Exploring self-compassion through writing
  • Taking care of the caregiver, and others.

As you begin the work to be more self-compassionate, remember that you did not develop your self-talk patterns overnight. There is nothing wrong or bad about you for having negative self-talk; it’s a normal human experience. You can change your self-talk to change your mood without blaming yourself for having that self-talk in the first place.

And lastly, give yourself permission for this process to take time. We see healing when we practice self-compassion and I invite you to take the first step.

Additional Resources

Further Reading:

Babenko, O., Mosewich, A. D., Lee, A., & Koppula, S. (2019). Association of physicians’ self?compassion with work engagement, exhaustion, and professional life satisfaction. Medical Sciences, 7(2), 29-36.

Neff, K. D., Knox, M. C., Long, P., & Gregory, K. (2020). Caring for others without losing yourself: An adaptation of the mindful self?compassion program for healthcare communities. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 76(9), 1543–1562.

Richardson, D.A.; Jaber, S.; Chan, S.; et al. (2016). Self-compassion and empathy: Impact on burnout and secondary traumatic stress in medical training. Open J. Epidemiol. 6, 161–166.


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