Not to be confused with self-pity, complacency or arrogance, self-compassion involves acknowledging your own suffering, faults, and mistakes and responding with kindness, caring, and understanding, without any judgment or evaluation. It’s talking to and treating yourself as you would a friend. It’s seeing your troubles and screw-ups as part of being human.
To practice self-compassion involves finding a healthy balance between self-acceptance and working for self-improvement. Instead of criticizing yourself for making that mistake or drowning in pity when you things don’t go your way, you adopt a kind, but realistic view of your experience. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a pioneer in self-compassion research, identifies three main components of the trait:
- Self-kindness – Become aware of your negative self-talk and replace the inner critic with a kinder, gentler voice.
- Common humanity – Acknowledge that suffering and personal failure are part of the universal experience of being human.
- Mindfulness – Observe your negative emotions without reacting to, focusing on, or suppressing them.
Research shows that self-compassion is a determining factor in whether life events become setbacks from which you don’t recover or stepping stones on the path forward.
Self-Compassion vs Self-Esteem
Self-compassion is a healthy alternative to the relentless pursuit of self-esteem and doesn’t require that you compete with or be better than anyone else. As opposed to self-esteem, self-compassion fosters a type of self-worth that isn’t contingent on outcomes or social comparisons. The emphasis is on learning, rather than performance. When you extend kindness to yourself, life becomes about being healthy, happy, and reaching your highest potential, instead of about competing or feeling special or superior to everyone else.
In the article, Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem, Neff writes:
So what’s the answer? To stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. To stop trying to label ourselves as “good” or “bad” and simply accept ourselves with an open heart. To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter.
Self-compassion presents a way to feel good about oneself other than self-esteem and with fewer downsides.
Benefits Of Self-Compassion
Research shows that self-compassion has many benefits, ranging from fewer depressive and more optimistic thoughts, overall greater happiness and life satisfaction to greater social and emotional skills and improvements in physical health. Specifically, some positive effects noted by studies are:
- It increases motivation.
- It boosts happiness.
- It improves body image.
- It enhances self-worth.
- It fosters resilience.
- It reduces mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and stress.
How To Learn Self-Compassion
I thought I was a compassionate person — maybe even the biggest bleeding heart around, but I realized that my compassion had never included myself. I could forgive anyone in my life for almost anything. However, no reason was good enough for me not to live up to the high expectations I held for myself. The same compassion that I gave so freely to others, I stingily withheld from myself.
As Jack Kornfield said,
In our culture, compassion for others is highly valued. Although it’s admirable to be supportive of a friend, kind to others, and help those in need, we tend to treat ourselves with a very different set of standards. Self-criticism and shame are taught and encouraged as self-motivating. We beat ourselves up thinking that doing so will help us become better people and prevent us from making the same mistakes again. But research shows that self-criticism only sabotages us and produces a variety of negative mental health consequences.
It wasn’t until after I had a serious brain injury, the result of a suicide attempt, that I learned to have compassion for myself. I realized how harsh my inner voice had been my whole life. If I couldn’t extend kindness and understanding to myself in my impaired state after the biggest mess-up of my life, how could I expect anyone else to?
Self-compassion is a skill that can be learned by working with a therapist or on your own. Some strategies to increase your compassion are:
Consider how you’d treat someone else.
Imagine what you’d do if someone you cared about came to you after failing, getting rejected or any upsetting situation you find yourself in. What would you say to them? What understanding and caring advice would you give them?
Become aware of your self-talk.
You may be so used to criticizing and judging yourself harshly that you don’t even realize that you’re doing it. Pay particular attention to the words you use to speak to yourself. Would you talk to someone you cared about the way you are talking to yourself?
Comfort yourself with a physical gesture.
Kind physical gestures can have an immediate calming effect on your body by activating the soothing parasympathetic system. Giving yourself a hug or holding your own hand can also drop you into the present moment in your body and get you out of the negative chatter in your head.
Say compassionate affirmations.
Have a few phrases ready for when you catch yourself judging or criticizing yourself. Counter negative thoughts with compassionate statements to yourself. The affirmations need to present tense, positive, personal, and believable to work. Combining positive self-talk with a physical gesture — like placing your hands over your heart — can increase the impact. Some examples of phrases you might use are:
“This is just a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life.”
“How can I be kind to myself in this moment?”
Practice guided meditation.
Write yourself a love letter.
I know it sounds hokey, and it doesn’t have to be a mushy love letter. It can just be a kind, supportive, encouraging letter like you would write to a friend. Identify something that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. Next, write a letter to yourself expressing understanding and kindness. (More instruction here.)
Here’s a wonderful video of Kristin Neff talking about overcoming objections to self-compassion: