Self compassion refers to offering support, kindness, and acceptance to ourselves, especially at distressing or otherwise difficult times. Responding to personal failures with genuine warmth and care rather than reacting in cold and bitter ways characterize self compassion. In our society, we often find it easier to express compassion toward other people and might even consider being compassionate toward ourselves as self indulgent, self pitying, or as a way of letting ourselves off the hook. This is not the case. In fact, self compassion has been shown to be an effective and promising method to reduce distressing and anxious emotions; it is also a way of increasing compassion and empathy toward others as well as ourselves, which can heighten relationships. In short, although it may seem foreign at first, self compassion is well worth the effort.
According to the academic definition of self compassion outlined by self compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, self compassion is made up of three parts: self kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Broadly, this refers to not being harsh on yourself at times of failure, recognizing that all people suffer and experience pain, and maintaining a non biased awareness of what is actually going on in the present moment – no more no less.
Self compassion refers to loving and accepting ourselves, however we are and regardless of whether we experience failure or success. This touches on a major distinction between self esteem and self compassion. Very often, we receive messages about the importance of having high self esteem in order to do well or prosper in life. In terms of self esteem, self worth is contingent on succeeding and doing well; when we experience failure or another misfortune, self worth and confidence usually plummet. Research has shown that maintaining a self compassionate attitude helps to foster feelings of self worth not dependent on succeeding but on consistently genuine feelings of care and kindness for ourselves. Most of us learn that it is selfish or conceited to care for ourselves too much. It is understandable, then, that it is often considered almost foreign, even illicit, to direct feelings of compassion inward! However, research has shown that being self compassionate not only helps us feel unconditionally cared for and supported but also to care for others. Being self compassionate is a way of training or teaching the self on how to be empathic toward others.
Following difficult times – whether this includes failures, tragedies, traumas, or other forms of devastation -, it is common for self judgment and criticism to lead to feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, or any other distressing and uncomfortable emotion. Being able to treat ourselves with compassion can benefit mental health and well being. By not denying or hiding from the situation, reality is acknowledged, the fact that all humans fail or have tough times is upheld, and offering ourselves the kindness and support we all crave (and desperately need) can and does lead to some alleviation of the pain in a realistic and respectful way. Since we are receiving the kindness we crave from our own compassionate comforting, we are likely to be less dependent on receiving the love and support from others; as such, we could direct even more of our attention and affection toward friends and loved ones. Both romantic and parental relationships could benefit when members are self compassionate.
Learning to become aware of and acknowledge our own need for kindness, genuine caring, and support is often a first step toward developing self compassion. Being able to “step back” from any situation (especially those containing intense or painful emotions) and see them for what and how they really are without judgement is often considered liberating and can widen perspectives. The ability to perceive the extent to which we all need or would benefit from being caring and supportive to ourselves often arises over time. It is also important to keep in mind that everyone suffers:: regardless of culture, gender, sexual orientation, age, or socioeconomic status, everyone experiences difficult times. To different extents and in different contexts, certainly, but the experience of pain is something we all have in common. We are not alone in feeling this way!
Through learning and practicingf various methods to increase feelings of self compassion, benefits and improvements will abound in various aspects of life – importantly mental health and functioning. Allowing ourselves to receive genuine warmth, care,, and support from our very self could be an effective treatment for the unpleasant feelings currently experienced. Regardless of the duration or the specific foci and context, therapy including self compassion could provide the hope so commonly looked for.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed To Be. Center City, MN: Hazleden Publishing.
Chodron, P. (2004). Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. Colorado, USA: Shambhala Publishing.
Neff, K. (2011). Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
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