How do you talk to yourself when you are struggling? Is your inner voice kind, understanding, and encouraging, or harsh and critical? Self-compassion is strongly linked to decreased stress, increased happiness, physical and mental well-being, and overall life satisfaction.
What is self-compassion?
Dr. Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as treating yourself with the same kindness, care, and understanding that you would show to a close friend who is struggling. The three components of self-compassion are:
Awareness that we are struggling. This is a state of acceptance and clarity. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. Mindfulness requires that we turn toward our pain, without exaggerating it and getting caught up in our own drama.
Being warm and gentle with ourselves when we are suffering or “failing,” rather than allowing our inner critic to dismiss us or shame us.
Recognizing that we all are human, and that vulnerability and imperfection are universal. When we see our personal experience as part of a larger human experience, we are saved from the further pain of isolation.
What self-compassion is not
Our mistaken beliefs about self-compassion may actually lead us to avoid it.
It is not self-esteem.
Whereas self-compassion is a state of loving, connected presence, self-esteem is a global evaluation of self-worth. It is a judgment. Self-esteem is based on a need to be special, or above average. As it simply isn’t possible for everyone to be above average, the need to be better than others encourages social comparison, which can lead to putting others down in order to lift ourselves up. Other unhealthy tendencies of fighting for high self-esteem include narcissism and maladaptive perfectionism. Self-esteem also tends to be contingent on our achievements or on the opinions of others, making it unstable. We may be feeling great when someone compliments our new haircut, then our self-esteem may plummet when we realize we forgot to pay a bill. Self-compassion is the perfect alternative to self-esteem because it is unconditional. It is always accessible, even when we mess up (which is when we need it the most).
It is not letting yourself off the hook.
Are you worried that if you practice self-compassion, you won’t hold yourself accountable? Self-compassion is not self-indulgent or enabling. True kindness – as opposed to being “nice” to ourselves – means that we consider and support our long-term objectives and goals for our health and happiness, not just what will make us feel good or safe in the moment. We don’t have to beat ourselves up or shame ourselves into action. Holding ourselves accountable with self-compassion and kindness is far more effective.
It is not selfish.
Self-compassion may start with the self, but it doesn’t end there. As humans, we are wired to pick up on and be affected by the mental states of others – their loving, connected presence, or their feelings of shame and inadequacy. Practicing self-compassion is one of the kindest things you can do for others. It also enhances interpersonal relationships. People with high self-compassion are described by their partners as more kind and loving. Compassion for self doesn’t take away from compassion for others; it adds to it.
The benefits of self-compassion
In addition to increasing general happiness and life satisfaction, self-compassion has been shown to decrease pain and increase immune function. It reduces mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and stress. It improves our body image, our sense of hope, and our resilience. Self-compassion is a far more effective motivator than self-criticism, leading to increased productivity.
Practical tools for self-compassion
Notice your own self-talk
Throughout the day, observe the way you speak to yourself when you are having a hard time, or when you make a mistake. Do you have your own back? Or is that inner critic stepping in? Notice if you tend to beat yourself up for beating yourself up! See if you can reserve judgment and hold yourself in loving, connected presence. You may want to record your thoughts in a journal.
Take a self-compassion break
This exercise can be done at any time, and will help you remember and connect to the three components of self-compassion.
Assess your self-compassion
How self-compassionate are you? Take this assessment to find out!