What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion involves responding in the same supportive and understanding way you would with a good friend when you have a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. There are three elements which comprise self-compassion: Self-kindness vs. self-judgment, common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification.
Self-Kindness vs. Self-judgment
The element of kindness at the core of self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or punishing ourselves with self-criticism.
Common humanity vs. Isolation
Common humanity involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
This is central to self-compassion and provides the awareness needed to be with ourselves as we are and to validate our pain. It’s a balanced state that steers clear of two common reactions to suffering: avoidance and overidentification.
In daily life, self-compassion involves noticing when we’re having a hard time, and rather than judging and criticizing ourselves, we respond to our pain with care and kindness, just as we would a dear friend. There’s now an impressive and growing body of research demonstrating that relating to ourselves in a kind, friendly manner is essential for emotional wellbeing. And though self-compassion is not often the first response for many of us during moments of personal struggle, this skill can be trained, even for those of us who did not learn it as children.
The Myths of Self-Compassion
- Self-compassion is a form of self-pity
While many people think of self-compassion as feeling sorry for yourself, in fact, self-compassion makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness, which paradoxically helps us process and let go of them more fully. (Neff & Pommier, 2013, Raes, 2010)
- Self-compassion is weak
Researchers are discovering that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us when we encounter major difficulties, such as divorce or chronic pain. (Sbarra, Smith & Mehl, 2012, Hiraoka et al., 2015, Wren et al, 2012)
- Self-compassion is selfish
Contrary to the idea that self-compassion is selfish, a growing body of research shows self-compassionate people tend to be more caring and supportive in romantic relationships (Neff & Beretvas, 2013), are more likely to compromise in relationship conflicts (Yarnell & Neff, 2013), and are more compassionate toward others (Neff & Pommier, 2013).
- Self-compassion is self-indulgent
Compassion advocates long-term health not short-term pleasure (just like a compassionate mother doesn’t let her child eat all the ice cream he or she wants but says “eat your vegetables.”) And research shows self-compassionate people engage in healthier behaviors like exercise (Magnus, Kowalski & McHugh, 2010), eating well (Schoenefeld & Webb, 2013), and going to the doctor more regularly (Terry et al., 2013).
- Self-compassion is a form of making excuses
Self-compassion provides the safety needed to admit mistakes, rather than needing to blame someone else for them. Research also shows that self-compassionate people take greater personal responsibility for their actions (Leary et al., 2007), and are more likely to apologize if they’ve offended someone (Brienes & Chen, 2012).
- Self-compassion will undermine motivation
Most people believe self-criticism is an effective motivator, but it actually undermines self-confidence and leads to fear of failure. Motivation with self-compassion comes from the desire for health and well-being. It provides the emotionally supportive environment needed for change. Research shows that self-compassionate people have high personal standards; they just don’t beat themselves up when they fail (Neff, 2003b). This means they are less afraid of failure (Neff, Hseih, & Dejitthirat, 2007) and are more likely to try again and to persist in their efforts after failing (Breines & Chen, 2012).
Tender and Fierce Aspects of Self-Compassion
“Self-compassion allows us to be with ourselves as we are in all of our brokenness. Fierce compassion calls on us to be brave, to take action, to do something to mitigate suffering.” – Kristin Neff
Most people think of self-compassion as being soft and gentle, but self-compassion can be fierce as well as tender. Fierce self-compassion involves taking action in the world to protect, provide and motivate ourselves to alleviate our suffering. Together with tender self-compassion, which allows us to accept ourselves fully with our flaws, it creates a caring force that allows us to thrive. And when we thrive, so do others in our circle.
How self-compassionate are you?
Are you curious to learn more?
Explore the Mindful Self-Compassion training program now.
- Harris, Dan and Neff, Kristin. “Kryptonite for the Inner Critic,” Ten Percent Happier Podcast
- Neff, Kristin. “Self-Compassion Part 1” video
- Neff, Kristin. “Fierce Self-Compassion” video
- Neff, Kristin. Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive
- Self-Compassion Test
- Germer, Chris, and Neff, Kristin. “The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion,” Mindful.org
- Neff, Kristin. “The 5 Myths Keeping You Trapped in Self-Criticism,” Psychotherapy Networker