The Power Of Self-compassion
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
What is Self-compassion
Self-compassion is associated with a number of benefits ranging from greater life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, social connectedness, happiness, optimism, to decreased self-criticism, perfectionism, depression, and anxiety (see Neff, 2009 to read more). Pioneer researcher Dr. Kristin Neff defined self-compassion to be composed of 3 key elements:
Self-kindness in treating yourself with the same care and understanding that you would
offer a friend.
Common humanity in recognition that everyone struggles and feels inadequate in some
way, that being imperfect is simply a part of the shared human condition.
Mindfulness in awareness of the present moment that neither ignores nor amplifies
unpleasant aspects of your experience.
Myths of Self-compassion
#1 Self-compassion is equivalent to self-esteem.
Self-esteem refers to how well we think of ourselves and generally how much we like ourselves. In contrast, self-compassion is not based on self-image or positive self-evaluation. Self-compassion is simply feeling moved by your suffering, with the desire to alleviate it, as you would the suffering of a friend or loved one. Research shows that it’s actually quite difficult to create long-lasting change to one's self-esteem. Self-compassion, on the other hand, can be improved with brief interventions and leads to more stable feelings of self-worth (1,2).
#2 Self-compassion is feeling sorry for yourself.
Self-compassionate individuals are less self-critical, ruminate less on distressing thoughts and emotions, and are less likely to feel negatively about themselves when faced with a past failure, rejection or loss (3,4). People who are highly self-compassionate are also less likely to compare themselves against others. Self-compassion involves recognizing that you are not alone in your suffering. Though we may not struggle with the same things or in the same way, the experience of struggling and being imperfect is universal.
#3 Self-compassion will make you weak and complacent.
Self-compassion is often described as having "a strong back and a soft front." Self-compassion provides strength during difficult moments by increasing our abilities to self-regulate and cope with stress (5). Studies show that self-compassion activates a number of key neurochemicals including Oxytocin to downregulate the fear circuitry, Dopamine that upregulates motivation and reward, and Vasopressin "the chemical of courage". Opposite to complacency, self-compassion is found to provide stronger motivation towards self-improvement than self-esteem (6,1)
"Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skills at our disposal."
- Sharon Salzberg
Benefits of Self-compassion
Self-compassion will improve your physical health. In addition to mental health gains, the practice of self-compassion is demonstrated to provide a number of physical health benefits including improved immune functioning (7), enhanced neuroendocrine responses to stress (8), and decreased illness symptoms (9).
Self-compassion will help you accept yourself. We’ve all experienced painful emotions and had to confront aspects of ourselves that we would rather not encounter. Self-compassion will help you develop the abilities to reflect on your emotions and not become overwhelmed by them. Rather than fighting or avoiding discomfort, you become more tolerant and accepting of your experiences and different aspects of yourself.
Self-compassion will help you relate to others. When we are less critical of ourselves, we become more empathetic and open to other people's experiences. Self-compassion will also allow you to be more assertive and set healthy boundaries with others. For caregivers (be it a parent, a friend, or a professional), being able to take a broader perspective of your own struggles will make you a better helper.
Self-compassion will help you handle challenges. Threat emotions, such as fear and anger, narrows our attention and decreases cognitive flexibility. Self-compassion creates feelings of safety. When we feel safe, our attention and thinking opens up, and we are able to be more reflective and problem solve effectively.
Self-compassion is a stronger motivator for change than criticism. Behavioural sciences tell us, simply, positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment. This may not be intuitive, particularly if punishment or negative reinforcement is what you’ve been shown and taught. When you have fallen and in pain, what you need isn’t judgement or criticism for falling, but rather understanding and support to get back up.
Many people struggle with self-compassion. A trained therapist can help you identify and overcome your unique barriers to compassion on your journey to developing a healthier relationship with yourself.
Learn more about self-compassion and associated research on Dr. Kristin Kneff's webpage here.
1. Neff, K. D., & Vonk, R. (2009). Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: Two different
ways of relating to oneself. Journal of Personality, 77, 23-50. doi:10.1111/j.14676494.2008.00537.x
2. Smeets, E., Neff, K. D., Alberts, H., & Peters, M. (2014). Meeting suffering with kindness:
Effects of a brief self-compassion intervention for female college students. Journal of clinical psychology, 70(9), 794-807. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22076
3. Johnson, E. A., & O’Brien, K. A. (2013). Self-compassion soothes the savage ego-threat system: Effects on negative affect, shame, rumination, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32(9), 939-963.
4. Allen, A. B., & Leary, M. R. (2010). Self-compassion, stress, and coping. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(2), 107-118. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.17519004.2009.00246.x.
5. Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887-904.
6. Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143. doi: 10.1177/0146167212445599
7. Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of the meditative expertise. Public Library of Science, 3: 1-5.
8. Pace, T. W. W., Negi, L. T. & Adame, D. D. (2008). Effects of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine innate immune and behavioral response to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen. 2008. 08. 011.
9. Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek J. & Finkel, S. A. (2008). Open heart build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95: 1045-1062.