When we think about the word “compassion,” we often think about it in terms of others in our lives. Describing someone as compassionate usually means we consider them to be understanding of others, selfless and put the needs of the many before their own.
However, the concept of self-compassion is not often recognized or practiced. This concept means that we take those ideas listed above and turn them inward: understanding ourselves and responding in a kind and caring way.
The Three Tenets of Self-Compassion
According to Dr. Kristin Neff’s website on self-compassion, the concept is comprised of three elements: self-kindness versus self-judgement, common humanity versus isolation and mindfulness versus over-identification (Neff).
Self-kindness versus self-judgement is practiced by accepting that no one is perfect, and allowing yourself to make mistakes rather than punishing yourself when they inevitably happen. Self-compassion requires that we recognize our feelings of inadequacy rather than ignore them, and then treat ourselves kindly without dismissing those feelings.
Common humanity versus isolation ties in with self-kindness. This element means that when we do feel frustrated with our perceived shortcomings, we understand that we are not the only ones having these feelings–in fact they are a natural part of being human. “Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone” (Neff).
The final element is one often utilized in meditation: mindfulness versus over-identification. While we cannot ignore our feelings of inadequacy, we should also be careful not to let them define us. Mindfulness is a practice in which we acknowledge our feelings, but do not judge them as good or bad. We simply accept our feelings as a part of ourselves rather than trying to suppress or over-emphasize them.
Self-Compassion over Self-Esteem
In an article for Live Science, Robin Nixon compares self-compassion to another hot button topic: self-esteem. The rise in parenting tactics that include the proverbial participation award have had mixed results, some of the most extreme cases ending in fragility and narcissism later in life (Nixon). Because self-compassion allows you to make and acknowledge your mistakes, as well as recognizing that these mistakes are part of being human, you can learn and move forward as part of a larger community. By contrast, Nixon explains, “…self-esteem is a measure of yourself against others. In order to keep self-esteem high, you have to convince yourself you are better (or, preferably, the best), either by denying your faults and pains or by putting others down, and usually both [10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]” (Nixon).
Self-Compassion and Your Mental Health
Biologically speaking, “self-compassion deactivates the threat system (associated with feelings of insecure attachment, defensiveness and autonomic arousal) and activates the self-soothing system (associated with feelings of secure attachment, safety, and the oxytocin-opiate system)” (Neff, Dahm). In another experiment where subjects were given a brief self-compassion exercise, the result was lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that causes and heightens feelings of stress. The exercise also “…increased heart-rate variability, which is associated with a greater ability to self-soothe when stressed.” Ultimately, the subjects were both less stressed out and better equipped to deal with stress when it did arise.
A higher level of self-compassion then leads to less suffering and a lower propensity for depression and anxiety. One reason for this is the link between self-compassion and self-criticism; self-kindness and mindfulness allow us to disassociate from criticism while still acknowledging it as feedback about our performance. In their chapter on self-compassion from the book Mindfulness and Self-Regulation, Dr. Kristin Neff and Katie Dahm detail an experiment that showed this correlation in a practical way. “In a study by Neff, Kirkpatrick and Rude (2007), participants were given a mock job interview in which they were asked to ‘describe their greatest weakness.’ Even though self-compassionate people used as many negative self-descriptors as those low in self-compassion when describing their weaknesses, they were less likely to experience anxiety as a result of the task” (Neff, Dahm). The subjects of the study with higher self-compassion also used more “we” pronouns rather than the isolating “I,” connecting them to a human experience and accepting their shortcomings as part of that experience. This understanding mental health struggles as universal rather than unique leads to a higher likelihood of treatment, as there is less shame to admitting that we need additional help dealing with an illness.
How to Cultivate Self-Compassion
For many of us, self-compassion is a new idea and will take changes big and small to build up. One practice that cultivates this skill is mindfulness; an element of meditation as well as an element of self-compassion, which requires that you stay in the moment in a non-judgmental way. You can and should recognize any distracting thoughts or feelings, using a method called ‘noting,’ where you choose a keyword to say to yourself or out loud during your mindfulness practice. This is something many guided meditations already incorporate.
In her article “Cultivating Self-Compassion” for Psychology Central, Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. offers several exercises for building self-compassion. These include offering ourselves healing touches or hugs, and reframing our thoughts about our own shortcomings to better accept and understand them as part of ourselves (Tartakovsky). You can keep track of these activities in a journal, a note-taking app on your phone, or simply start practicing them more often.
In her article for Mindful, Carley Hauck also suggests we get used to spending comfortable time alone. This can and should look different for everyone, but the common denominator is allowing ourselves the freedom to do what we want. Hauck explains: “I pick a day, or even a night…and I just slow down. I don’t schedule anything and I just let myself see what I want to do. Sometimes I read a book, write, spend hours in nature, eat exactly what I want and I am craving (and savor it!)” (Hauck).
Ultimately, self-compassion can be cultivated in many different ways and certainly should be unique to each person. One of the best possible results of better self-compassion can be a heightened sense of creativity Nixon explains:
“Presumably because they are not afraid of being mentally taken through the ringer, researchers also think self-compassionate people…have more courage and [are] more motivated to persevere. Those with self-compassion may even open access to higher levels of creative thinking, suggests one 2010 study in the Creativity Research Journal” (Nixon).
How will you treat yourself with more compassion and understanding? Check out our article on mindfulness and meditation apps to get started.
Hauck, Carley. “How to Choose Self-Compassion.” Mindful. N.p., 08 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <http://www.mindful.org/how-to-choose-self-compassion/>.
Neff, Kristin, and Katie Dahm. Self Compassion Online (n.d.): n. pag. Self-Compassion: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Relates to Mindfulness. Mindfulness and Self – Regulation. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/Mindfulness_and_SC_chapter_in_press.pdf>.
Neff, Kristin. “Definition of Self-Compassion.” Self-Compassion. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <http://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/#definition>.
Nixon, Robin. “Self-Compassion: The Most Important Life Skill?” LiveScience. Purch, 15 May 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <http://www.livescience.com/14165-parenting-compassion-life-skills.html>.
Tartakovsky, Margarita. “Cultivating Self-Compassion.” World of Psychology. Psych Central, 22 June 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/06/22/cultivating-self-compassion/>.