An Insider’s Guide to Self-Compassion

Self-compassion gets a lot of buzz, and for good reason. Pioneered by Dr. Kristin Neff, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the term refers to showing yourself the same care and kindness you’d show a close friend. If you find you’re often critical of your faults, have difficulty separating yourself from your negative thoughts when they arise, or feel like you’re alone in your struggles, practicing self-compassion can help.

In this post we’ll explore:

What self-compassion is (and what it’s not)

How self-compassion compares to self-esteem

The benefits of self-compassion

Tips for practicing self-compassion in everyday life

I’ll also share some handy online tools and exercises so you can practice what you’ve learned. So get cozy, grab a cup of tea, and let’s unpack these one by one!

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion arrived on the scene over a decade ago and has been growing in popularity and application ever since to be integrated with practices like mindfulness and meditation. To understand self-compassion, it’s helpful to think about compassion in general. The word compassion translates to “suffer with”, meaning that when you see someone in pain, your heart and mind are inclined to respond with sensitivity, caring, and warmth.

Showing compassion also encompasses being kind and understanding toward others when they make mistakes rather than judging them harshly. Finally, in being compassionate, we recognize that suffering, failure, and imperfection are inevitable and part of the universal human experience.

We all make mistakes. We all experience loss, illness, moments of failure, and fall short of the expectations we regularly set for ourselves.

We all make mistakes. We all experience loss, illness, moments of failure, and fall short of the expectations we regularly set for ourselves. It’s easy to hope or expect that by simply being kind to ourselves, we can eliminate our frustrations and difficulties. However, the goal of self-compassion isn’t to make our problems disappear, but to be better equipped to see ourselves through them.

Self-compassion encourages us to recognize and respond to our own suffering with tenderness. When you face a challenge, experience a setback, or notice something you don’t like about yourself, instead of being dismissive of or critical toward your pain, you can gently turn toward it with a desire to comfort and care for yourself.

Let’s review the three core components of self-compassion:

Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment: Self-compassion entails being kind and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate rather than suppressing our pain or turning on ourselves with self-criticism. When we’re able to accept that things won’t always go our way instead of becoming angry or turning away from our unpleasant circumstances, we can navigate the path ahead with greater emotional ease.

Common Humanity vs. Isolation: When we encounter frustration or difficulties, we often feel a sense of isolation, mistakenly believing that we’re alone in our experience. On the contrary, as human beings, we are each mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect. Showing ourselves compassion includes recognizing that suffering and feelings of inadequacy are part of the shared human experience and allowing ourselves to be comforted by this knowledge.

Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification: Self-compassion involves taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so we’re neither ignoring nor exaggerating our difficult feelings. This is achieved by (1) relating our personal experiences to those of others who are suffering, thereby putting our own situation into perspective, and (2) practicing mindfulness, or observing our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and nonjudgmental awareness.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, take a moment to complete this quiz to see where you fall on the self-compassion scale. (Don’t forget to practice being kind to yourself no matter your results!)

What Self-Compassion is Not

One of the most common misconceptions about self-compassion is that it’s a form of self-pity. It’s helpful to remember that when we feel self-pity, we become consumed by our own problems and forget that there are others going through similar difficulties. Self-pity often emphasizes feelings of separation from others and makes our own concerns seem worse than they are. Self-compassion, on the other hand, encourages us to consider how our experiences relate to others’ without the accompanying feelings of isolation and disconnect.

Self-compassion encourages us to consider how our experiences relate to others’ without the accompanying feelings of isolation and disconnect.

Another misconception about self-compassion is that it’s self-indulgent. Many people worry that by being compassionate with themselves, they’re letting themselves off the hook. For instance, if you curl up in front the TV with a pint of ice cream or a glass of wine after a hard day, it’s tempting to ridicule yourself for not sticking to your healthy eating habits or using your time more wisely. While such indulgences are typically harmless in small doses, they often don’t bring lasting relief. Showing yourself compassion means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long-term and this may involve making choices that are harder to stick to in the short-term (exercising, going to bed early, creating boundaries around leisure time.) When we’re motivated by compassion instead of shame, we’re more likely to make choices that promote growth and positive change while steering clear from self-condemnation.

Lastly, self-compassion is frequently misconstrued as being selfish. If you were raised in a family or culture that emphasized the importance of putting others’ needs before your own, it can be especially hard to reverse this tendency as an adult. Being compassionate toward ourselves doesn’t inhibit us from being there for others. In fact, the more preoccupied we are by our own imperfections, mistakes, and feelings of inadequacy, the less energy we have to devote to those we care about. Conversely, when we can be sensitive and nurturing toward our suffering, we’re able to better meet our emotional needs and give more of ourselves to serving others.

Before we explore how self-compassion differs from self-esteem, check out these tips for keeping a self-compassion journal!

What’s the Difference Between Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem?

Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, it’s actually quite different. Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While low self-esteem can lead to feelings of depression or lack of motivation, trying to raise our self-esteem can also be problematic. In Western culture, self-esteem is typically determined by how much we stand out from others. As such, in order to feel good about ourselves, we seek to be perceived as “special” or above average. This may lead us to become self-absorbed or put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. We might even become angry or resentful toward those who potentially make us feel bad about ourselves. Finally, our self-esteem is often dependent on our latest success or failure, rising and falling with our ever-changing circumstances.

Self-compassion, in contrast, is not based on self-evaluations. We show ourselves compassion because all human beings are deserving of understanding and kindness, not because they possess a particular set of traits or have achieved certain milestones. This means that you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Moreover, self-compassion is not dependent on our latest achievements or accolades – it’s available to us no matter the condition of our lives. Research shows that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.

Check out this article for further insights into the differences between self-compassion and self-esteem.

The Benefits of Self-Compassion

Dr. Neff has found that self-compassion has a significant positive association with:

Happiness

Optimism

Positive affect

Wisdom

Personal initiative

Curiosity and exploration

Agreeableness

Conscientiousness

Extroversion

It’s also been linked to reduced levels of anxiety and depression, and increased resilience needed to cope with stressful life events such as divorce, health crises, and academic failure. For a jumpstart, check out these guided self-compassion meditations!

Tips for Practice

There are many ways to practice being kind to yourself each day regardless of the struggles you may be facing. While we can’t always control the difficulties that come our way, we can choose to recognize them as part of the bigger picture and show ourselves the same care and concern as we would a close friend in seeing them through.

Coin your self-compassion mantra: Develop a few phrases that you’ll repeat to yourself each time you’re caught up in a cycle of self-deprecation, hopelessness, defeat, or frustration. Try to incorporate the three core components of self-compassion (self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.) Here’s an example: “I wish you didn’t have to go through this. This is what it means to be human. It’s natural to feel sad right now and I’m here for you.”

Build self-compassion breaks into your day: Set aside 5 minutes each day (or more if you’re able) to check in with yourself and what you’re needing. It might be as simple as getting a breath of fresh air or reading positive affirmations, or you may find that you need something that requires more time and effort. Reach out to a friend, go for a run, make a favorite meal, or do a guided imagery exercise. Remember to focus on your long-term motivations rather than your fleeting urges.

Practice being present: It’s difficult to show ourselves affection when we’re caught up in worries about the future. Often the frightening scenarios that our minds are so clever at crafting never come to pass. When you feel yourself getting swept away by anxiety about what lies ahead, try doing a grounding exercise to reorient yourself with the here and now. Use your five senses to tune into your surroundings, noting what you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Rather than trying to push your worrying thoughts out of your head, simply acknowledge them as manifestations of your mind and remind yourself that they can’t hurt you.

Avoid isolation: While it’s natural to want to keep to yourself when you’re going through a difficult time, doing so only compounds your present struggles by reinforcing the belief that you’re alone in facing them. Make an effort to be around others, even if it’s just immersing yourself in the aromas and activity of a busy coffeeshop. Spend time with a friend or loved one with whom you feel safe confiding. Try to limit the time you spend alone as this is often when our minds become busy with regrets about the past and fears about the future.

Embrace your imperfections: Above all, showing ourselves compassion requires acknowledging that we’re not perfect and neither are our lives. When you notice your self-critical voice kicking in, use it as an opportunity to remind yourself that to be human is to be flawed. Instead of allowing self-doubt to take hold, jot down five things you’re grateful for or five things you love about yourself. Pay attention to the impact this has on your perspective and how a simple shift in awareness can make a significant difference.

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