What is Self-Compassion?
By cultivating self-compassion, we can learn to be there for ourselves in times of suffering just as we are there for our friends.
Dr Kristin Neff is a leading expert on self-compassion. Not only was she the first person to properly define self-compassion, but she was also the first person to develop an accurate scale to assess it.
Kristin was at university the first time someone told her it was okay to be kind to herself. Being a researcher, this comment made her wonder what being 'kind to yourself' actually involved, how to go about it, and whether it was good for us (spoiler alert - it's very good for us).
My favourite way to think about self-compassion comes from a talk where Kristin asks us how we would react to the suffering of a close friend or loved one. How would we react if a friend told us they were depressed, or that they had just failed an exam or broken-up with a partner? How would we feel and what would we say? For most people, the answer is simple - we would feel a deep sense of compassion and take the time to reassure, support and comfort our friend.
Interestingly, when we turn this scenario on its head and think about how we would respond to ourselves in the same situation, the answer becomes less certain. For some reason, the huge amount of love and compassion we had for our friend disappears in the face of our own suffering. Instead, we may begin to ruminate and become self-critical, feeling depressed and blaming ourselves for our situation.
It is this discrepancy - this lack of compassion towards ourselves - that we must overcome if we are to live happier lives. By cultivating self-compassion, we can learn to be there for ourselves in times of suffering just as we are there for our friends.
Despite sounding reasonable, being nice to ourselves isn't always easy. Perhaps it even makes us feel guilty, undeserving or self-indulgent. However, this is exactly the opposite of self-compassion - and if you don't believe me, please listen to Dr Kristin Neff.
Treating yourself with compassion is not the same as being self-indulgent. Self-compassion does not mean staying at home and eating mountains of cake for the rest of your life when you are sad (although it would probably be okay to do this for an hour or so), and it does not mean avoiding things that might end in failure or negative feelings.
Self-compassion is acknowledging that negative feelings and experiences are something that everyone goes through as part of being human (common humanity vs. isolation).
Self-compassion is accepting yourself and your feelings as they are, without becoming swept up in rumination and self-pity or blame (mindful acceptance vs. over-identification).
Self-compassion is responding to your suffering kindly, the same way as you would a friend. You are not inadequate, you have just had a bad experience and it is okay to be upset. Bad feelings pass, they are not a permanent reflection of you as a person (self-kindness vs. self-judgment).
Research has shown that high levels of self-compassion are associated with a variety of positive outcomes for health and wellbeing:
Increased resilience and ability to cope with negative life events such as divorce, academic failure and health scares
Improved body image
Decreased anxiety, depression and stress
Improved sleep quality and quantity (you can read more about the link between self-compassion and sleep in a future post).
Increased engagement in health-related behaviours such as exercise, healthy-eating and sleep hygiene practices.
I think being told it is okay to be kind to yourself from another person - especially a leading researcher with years of experience, papers, intervention programmes and books - is something that everyone needs to hear at least once in their lives.
It is as if self-compassion eludes us until we are given an awareness of it, or permission from another to feel it, despite the fact it is essential to our health and wellbeing.
After all, if we are not first kind and present with ourselves, how can we possibly be kind and present with others?
Next time you are suffering, try showing some self-compassion:
Acknowledge your negative feelings/situation.
Realise that negative feelings/situations are not a sign of personal inadequacy or failure, but are part of the common human experience.
Treat yourself kindly and try to accept the negative feelings/situation instead of being self-critical. Ask yourself: 'what would I say to a friend going through the same thing?'
You can read more about self-compassion practices and interventions in a future post.
Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and identity, 2(3), 223-250.
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.
Neff, K. D. (2014). The three components of self-compassion. Great Good Science Centre. The Science of a Meaningful Life. YouTube.
Neff, K. D. (2014). Overcoming objections to self-compassion. Greater Good Science Centre. The Science of a Meaningful Life. YouTube.