We ascribe a positive connotation to those who embody compassion and tend to think of those who are compassionate as kind, gentle, warm, and empathetic.
Who comes to mind when you think of those qualities? Perhaps it’s a public figure, like Princess Diana or Mother Teresa, or people who were seen in action alleviating the suffering of others. Or maybe it’s your best friend or your mom, who are always by your side supporting you when you need it most.
We all know and love these compassionate people, and they’re often some of the happiest people we know. They light up a room and bring joy to those around them. Not only do their compassionate qualities shine, but they create domino effects and inspire others to do the same. Perhaps you consider yourself a compassionate person, noticing when someone is suffering and wishing to alleviate their pain.
Many of us, especially those who consider ourselves empaths, are quick to support our inner circle of friends, family, and loved ones with kindness and compassion, acting immediately when we notice their difficulties. While we jump out of our seat to help others, we frequently prevent one very important person from reaping the benefits of our compassionate nature...
Instead, we treat ourselves with contempt, misery, and judgment. We demand perfection, criticize our actions, and set unrealistic expectations. Imagine speaking to others the way you speak to yourself! When a friend makes a mistake, we say, “Everyone makes mistakes.” Yet when we make a mistake, we look at ourselves and say, “You’re so stupid!” When a friend shares that they don’t like the way they look, we say, “You’re so beautiful!” But when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we often experience shame and disgust. Imagine instead how it might feel to speak to yourself the way you speak to others.
The study of self-compassion, running parallel with mindfulness, has been a growing interest for many researchers and psychologists. It encourages us to take a kinder, gentler approach in our arguably most important relationship: the one we have every day with ourselves.
What Is Self-Compassion?
According to renowned researcher and therapist Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion is acting the same way toward yourself as you would a friend when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. She even describes it as “healing ourselves with kindness.” Dr. Chris Germer, in another body of research, refers to self-compassion as the “warmhearted attitude of mindfulness when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate.”
While compassion focuses on how we relate to others, self-compassion focuses on the inner relationship with ourselves and the desire to alleviate our own pain and suffering instead of putting our own needs on the back burner.
It seems like having self-compassion is a no-brainer. Kindness, softness, and empathy toward ourselves? Sign us up! So why is flipping the narrative and practicing compassion toward ourselves so difficult?
While being compassionate toward others typically has a positive connotation, self-compassion, on the other hand, can sometimes have a negative connotation by seeming narcissistic, self-pitying, or selfish.
It can be easy to align with that negative rationale at face value, but it’s an idea that is simply not true. While self-compassion is, of course, a focus on the self, it is one that is conducted more objectively and mindfully. It involves enabling positive momentum rather than getting wrapped up in our own thoughts and feelings. Recognizing and celebrating your most admirable characteristics is actually an incredibly healthy and positive practice.
Having compassion for ourselves isn't for the faint of heart. It challenges us to think in new ways and can bring up painful thoughts, feelings, and emotions from our past. However, confronting this dimension of ourselves can be a positive mechanism for long-term healing.
Positive Benefits of Practicing Self-Compassion
Similar to the benefits of being compassionate toward others, there are an abundance of mental and physical health benefits to practicing self-compassion; this is a reason it's gaining so much popularity.
It’s reported that practicing self-compassion can reduce feelings of anxiety, depression, and rumination. Additionally, it allows us to connect more deeply with ourselves and relate in a new way to others as we feel a deeper resonance with their experiences.
Developing compassion that you can offer yourself in difficult or painful times has many other long-term benefits, including increased motivation, self-worth, overall happiness, general satisfaction, optimism about the future, and improved resilience.
Three Elements of Self-Compassion
According to Dr. Neff, there are three elements of self-compassion that are important to understand as you embark on your journey.
1. Self-kindness vs. self-judgment
It’s easy to be cruel, harsh, and critical of ourselves when we feel like we’ve fallen short or made a mistake. Self-compassion teaches us that life, and ourselves, is imperfect and it’s okay. When we can recognize the reality that difficult times fall upon us all, we’re able to offer a warm and gentle approach to ourselves during those moments instead of judging ourselves.
2. Common humanity vs. isolation
To be human is to suffer. While the suffering each of us experiences may be different, it is inevitable. When we recognize this is a collective experience, we feel less alone and, therefore, more able to practice compassion toward ourselves and others. The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of this as the entire world shared an experience of suffering.
3. Mindfulness vs. exaggeration
Self-compassion also requires the ability to find a balance between suppressing our emotions and exaggerating them. In this state, we need to recognize our negative emotions and put them into a larger perspective to prevent getting caught up in them.
Becoming self-compassionate, even if you regard yourself as a compassionate person, can be difficult, especially at first. It’s important we practice patience with ourselves and remember everything, including ourselves, is a work in progress. With practice and commitment, we can all develop self-compassion that will help us live more fulfilled, meaningful lives.
The first step in developing self-compassion is understanding that your practice will not make bad feelings go away. Your practice will help you accept your feelings and pain so you can move through them with more ease. Suppression, on the other hand, will only make them worse.
1. Develop a mindfulness practice for self-awareness.
Self-compassion is deeply related to mindfulness, as it allows us to turn to ourselves, recognize our inner world, and understand where our thoughts and feelings may be coming from. This allows us to find balance with warmth and kindness. It also helps us be open to the present moment and accept a situation without judgment.
Your realizations as you practice mindfulness will be profound and beneficial to your overall mind-set. Everyone’s mindfulness practice will look different, but a few great places to start are short, guided meditations, journaling, or breathing exercises. Slowly, you will become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and needs and how they’re impacting your life both positively and negatively.
2. Use affirmations.
Affirmations can feel silly at first, but using kind words toward yourself when you’re having negative thoughts or experiences can feel as supportive as someone else saying them to you. Here are a few examples:
- “It’s okay, sweetie.”
- “You’re okay.”
- “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself. May I give myself the compassion I need.” – Dr. Neff
- “I am gentle and kind to myself.”
- “I offer myself loving, gentle attention.”
- “I will be kind to myself.”
3. Ask yourself, “How would I treat a friend?”
Next time you find yourself criticizing yourself, simply ask, “Would I talk to [insert friend’s name] this way?” Chances are you wouldn’t. Try talking to yourself the same way you’d speak to them, and notice the shift in how you feel!
4. Give yourself permission to be imperfect.
As we’ve learned, imperfection and suffering are what it means to be human; you are not alone in this experience. Allowing ourselves to be imperfect creates an opportunity and an openness for us to feel freer and have more authentic experiences.
5. Write yourself a note.
Write a kind note to your current self or your childhood self. Tell yourself everything is okay and you’re all right, and remind yourself of all your most admirable qualities.
Cultivating Self-Compassion for Short-Term and Long-Term Health
Self-compassion may feel difficult and uncomfortable, but the benefits will serve you and the world around you. When we show up for ourselves, we show up better for all parts of our lives. The warmth we derive from compassion toward others and ourselves signals to the world that we’re committed to long-lasting health and happiness. To learn more about cultivating practices for better emotional and mental health, check out our Mental Health and Emotional Health sections of the IIN blog.