Self compassion is a term people hear a lot but often do not fully understand and may not consider important for their mental health. Self compassion is not about “candy coating” or thinking overly positive about objectively difficult experiences. Self compassion is like being a steady, realistic friend to ourselves. When things are difficult our impulse is often to criticize ourselves as motivation or punishment. Self compassion says, “this is really difficult right now, how can I take care and be there to support myself through this?”
How is self compassion different from self esteem?
To have high self esteem we must feel special and above average. This, of course, is not possible all the time and as a result we put others down, so we feel better about ourselves. We feel jealous when others succeed as if they take something from us. We have an artificially inflated sense of ourselves to protect our self esteem. Self esteem is contingent on success and if there is no success, we do not feel good about ourselves. Self compassion is about embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all. Self compassion comes with all the benefits offered by high self esteem but without the costs (narcissism, greed, jealousy, bullying) (Neff, 2011).
This all makes sense so why would anyone not show compassion to themselves???
This might be a question we ask ourselves but for most people they think self compassion will make them lazy or unmotivated. Research shows the opposite to this intuition. Criticism undermines motivation by activating the threat response increasing stress hormones. This can lead to a shutting down response. There may be a short-term benefit to criticism, but it certainly is not sustainable and comes at a cost. Self compassion, on the other hand, does not depend on you being better or special. Self compassion embraces how difficult life can be and asks how I can help, what do I need. Self compassion gives you a sense of being valuable because you are a human being.
3 components of self compassion:
How to do it
It can be difficult to make the transition to relate to yourself in this way. A helpful way to start practicing this is by imagining we are talking to a good friend or our children. If your child fails a test at school, we want to acknowledge how they feel (angry, frustrated, sad) and say how can I help, what do you need, how can we prepare better for next time, you aren’t alone in this experience. Rather than: “what is wrong with you”, “you better figure this out or you will not amount to much in life”, “this is unacceptable”. We accept ourselves and the situation as it is. That does not mean we don’t want things to change but understand that change and growth happens in the context of feeling safe and cared for.
When do you feel most creative and productive?
Is it when we feel criticized and unworthy, frightened for your future or when you feel cared for supported and understood? When you hold both truths, of being okay with exactly how you are, and wanting to work hard and make life meaningful, it allows for self compassion to care for us in difficult times.
Kristen Neff is a leading expert and researcher in self compassion. If you would like more information and resources on self compassion, check out Kristen Neff’s website: https://selfcompassion.org/.
Written by Alison Campbell, Registered Psychologist with Wildflowers.
Brach, T. (2019). Radical Compassion. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Neff, K. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Journal of Self and Identity, 2(3), 223-250.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow