The Benefits of Self-Compassion

compassion

Overview

Self-compassion is one of the most important but most poorly understood concepts. Some people equate compassion with ‘kindness’ and self-compassion with being ‘soft’, ‘narcissistic’, ‘overly indulgent’, or having a ‘weakness’.

This page discusses what self-compassion is (and what it is NOT); why self-compassion is so important (including the direct benefits to you for developing more self-compassion); and, it explores the most common myths around self-compassion.

Firstly, Compassion – What’s the big deal, anyway? 

To understand what self-compassion is, we first need to explore the definition (and components) of compassion. Compassion is also often misunderstood which is unfortunate because it is one of the most skillful motivations, and one of the most helpful attributes, that we can harness in psychology (!). Compassion does not simply mean ‘to be nice’ nor does it mean ‘to be empathic’. Although sometimes these things may be involved, depending on situation, they actually might not (!).

A standard definition of compassion comes from the Dalai Lama and it involves two-parts: “Sensitivity to the causes of suffering in one’s self and others” (Part A), combined with “the commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it” (Part B).

Alas, as you will see, this not always easy to do. For example, most people come to therapy very eager to “alleviate” their suffering (Part B of the above definition), but at the same time they are in fact insensitive to their own suffering (Part A). Read on, to find out why this is!

Compassion is a caring motivation that requires immense courage and an important set of inter-related motivations and skills that consist of:

  • Having precise and sensitive awareness of suffering (Sensitivity);
  • Allowing ourselves to feel moved (Sympathy); having an ability to understand what is going on from different perspectives (Empathy);
  • Having an ability to tolerate distress (Distress Tolerance); and,
  • Having a non-judgmental attitude regarding what is going on (awareness of distress without ‘adding to it’ or going to threat / protective strategies such as ‘shame about shame’, ‘anger about anger’, or ‘anxiety about anxiety’, or ‘self-criticism about self criticism’).

Compassion does not just mean ‘being kind’ – Compassion may involve coming into contact with suffering so that you can do whatever is necessary to help reduce or stop it.

eg, Imagine a mother throwing herself in front of a bus to protect her child who may have run out onto the street. She most certainly will get hurt – she may even get killed. This is not ‘kindness’ (!). Rather, this is doing whatever needs doing – an act of compassion for her child, that risks herself becoming harmed, in order to prevent suffering.

eg, During COVID-19, there was a huge shortage of medical staff available in certain cities of America. So,  retired doctors and nurses were called upon to consider returning to serve the public. Many of these health workers were in the ‘golden years’ of their lives (and thus were from a hugely ‘at-risk’ and vulnerable population). Yet, many took up the opportunity to stand up courageously and ‘do something’  even knowing very well that there were risks to them and their loved ones.

eg, Imagine a firefighter rescuing a child out of a burning building. They may have children and a family of their own. But, they are skilled, and well-trained, and despite the risks, they use this knowledge courageously to ‘do something’ to help whenever they can.

These examples are not just ‘kind’ – helping an old lady with her shopping is ‘kind’. Rather, these examples capture the full definition of compassion described earlier (Part A and Part B). These examples exemplify the qualities of what compassion involves: Sensitivity, Sympathy, Empathy, Distress Tolerance, Non-Judgement.

So, again – Compassion requires: being willing to understand the nature and causes of suffering while also being willing and courageous enough to come into contact with (vs avoiding) that suffering, so that we can actually do something to eliminate or prevent further harm in the best ways that we can.

Another common misunderstanding is that compassion is ’empathy’. However, although compassion involves empathy, compassion is not simply empathy. After all, empathy in combination with other qualities can actually be a terrible thing ! (eg, emphatic killers make the most cruel killers precisely because they are empathic – they cause people great pain and torture specifically because they are good at understanding other people’s feelings!).

Another common misunderstanding is that compassion is the same as ‘sympathy’. However, compassion is not sympathy (‘feeling sorry for…’).  Whereas sympathy is passive, compassion is active because it involves both choosing to feel moved by suffering in order to do something about the feeling (eg, think of a mother or father cradling a sick and fevered child – they are doing what they can, even if means coming in contact with the child’s illness).

In a nutshell, compassion is what arises when witnessing suffering that motivates a subsequent desire to help. As you will discover, Self-Compassion ALSO brings together the SAME skills as compassion, and directes them onto one’s self: (self-) awareness, empathy (towards self), distress tolerance (of emotions within one’s self), courage (to be with and help with the challenging parts of one’s self), intention (to care for one’s self), which requires much wisdom, strength and persistence.

The purpose of Self-Compassion is not simply about removing your difficulties – it is the opposite. Self-compassion means attending to suffering within one’s self (Part A) while having the intention to do something that is helpful (Part B) because that is precisely what we are needing when we are suffering.

Yet, for complex reasons related to our development (discussed later on this and in several other articles I have written), this doesn’t come naturally to many people.

What is Self-Compassion then ? 

Self-Compassion means taking responsibility for our actions while recognizing that we didn’t choose so many factors in life – we didn’t choose our genders, our evolutionary histories, our ‘tricky brains’, the countries we were born into, the families we were born into, or our developmental or trauma histories – so much of our lives is determined by factors outside of ourselves.

Despite this, many of us still go around blaming and shaming ourselves for what we did wrong. Yet, when we can move towards a courageous fierce and empowered compassionate understanding, we can realize that although SO MUCH in life is not our fault, it remains our responsibility to do something about how we choose to act. So as you can see, neither compassion or self-compassion are about being soft or kind – it’s about taking charge and being accountable for our actions. This means understanding that we are suffering, and doing what we can – because THAT’S WHAT WE NEED.

Self-compassion means extending the definition of compassion above (that means, BOTH Parts of that definition – not just ‘Prat B’) to instances of perceived shame, inadequacy, failure, or any other kind of suffering such as self-criticism, or difficult inner experiences that we might be struggling with. Self-compassion motivates us to achieve our goals, cope with adversity (i.e., increased resilience), take responsibility for our actions, and noticing our needs and caring for ourselves (and others) in a sustainable ways that are workable.

Why is Self-Compassion Important?

Self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us. Self-compassion results in many benefits, including reduced isolation, increased mindfulness and reduced over-identification.

Self-Compassion is the antidote to self-attacking – our “inner-critic” self-critical or self-sabotaging attitudes, reactions, and punitive feelings that can hijack our confidence or peace of mind, triggering out threat systems. This can often lead to destructive behaviors.

Self-compassion is a way to deactivate the brain’s threat system by activating its ‘safeness/soothing system‘ which works for you so that you can take responsibility and turn towards working with difficult feelings and thereby respond more effectively to life’s challenges.

Self-compassion is more beneficial to our psychological well-being than self-esteem because it is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.

Researchers have found that participants who displayed more self-compassion when talking about a relationship breakup evidenced better psychological adjustment afterwards and that this effect persisted nine months later.

compassion

Benefits of Self-Compassion: Research Findings

  • Strongly predictive of well-being – people who are taught to be more self-compassionate tend to become less depressed, less anxious, are less likely to suffer from excessive shame or suicidal ideation. It results in an increase in positive emotions: optimism, hope for the future.
  • Doesn’t have the problems of self-esteem pursuit – Self-esteem fluctuates. It is based on social comparison (you have to be better than others in order to have self-esteem) whereas self-compassion you don’t have to be better than anyone, you just have to be human. Self-esteem is not as stable as self-compassion because it is entirely dependent on achievement and it deserts you at times of failure – whereas this self-compassion is always there for you.
  • Linked to resilient coping – The way people treat themselves during hard times (trauma, relationship breakdowns) is a strong predictor of future mental health and emotional problems. People who practice self-compassion are kinder to themselves and bounce back faster from setbacks. Self-compassion helps you get through hard times – It’s a strength, not a weakness.
  • Healthier behaviours (more towards moves) – Whereas self-indulgence focuses on immediate pleasures but ultimately leads to long term harm, self-compassion involves making choices that alleviate one’s own suffering. People who are more self-compassionate make healthier and more caring choices for themselves and their futures.
  • More compassion for others – Because practicing self-compassion brings you in touch with your ability to meet your own needs – when you give yourself what you need, this gives you a greater pool of energy to allow you to respond sensitively to the needs of others. This also leads to less burnout when giving to others.
  • Better interpersonal relationships – Self-compassion leads to less selfish behavior in relationships. People who practice self-compassion are more capable of being intimate, are more giving, and are less controlling.

For someone to develop genuine compassion towards others, first he or she must have a basis upon which to cultivate compassion, and that basis is the ability to connect to one’s own feelings and to care for one’s own welfare … caring for others requires caring for oneself.” – Dalai Lama

Benefits: Self-Compassion & Motivation

After practicing self-compassion regularly, you will begin to notice that you are:

    • Learning to be your inner ally (vs your inner enemy)
    • No longer fearful of emotions such as fear, anxiety, or sadness
    • No longer engaging in harsh self-criticism
    • Experiencing more energy to care about this things that truly matter to you
    • Willing to take more personal responsibility and are more motivated to repair past mistakes
    • Holding high standards for yourself, but do not beat yourself up when you fail to succeed
    • Less fearful of failing because you are better able (and are more willing) to support yourself to try again
    • More likely to succeed because failure no longer triggers threat and self-criticsm

Myths About Self-Compassion

MYTH:

“Self-compassion will ruin my motivation because it will allow me to get away with anything”

FACT: Many people say they are reluctant to be self-compassionate because they are afraid they would let themselves get away with anything. eg, “I feel bad today so I’ll just be nice to myself and stay home and watch TV, and eat a bucket of ice-cream.”

However, this is self-indulgence NOT self-compassion. The key to understanding the difference is that self-indulgence is focused on giving one’s self short-term pleasures – such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato, or allowing yourself to over react to strong emotions in ways that can often make a situation worse.

In contrast, being compassionate to oneself means that you understand the source of your current suffering and all that that entails, but that you genuinely also want to be happy and healthy in the long term. Clearly, this easy to talk about and much harder in practice – because in many cases, giving yourself health and lasting happiness in the future often involves a certain amount of displeasure in the present moment (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).

MYTH:

“Self-compassion will mean I won’t care about my mistakes !”

FACT: No – Self-compassion is NOT about letting yourself get away with your mistakes. It is an active process that involves personal responsibility – but without resorting to being punitive. Self-compassion acknowledges the truth that we are all imperfect beings who are impacted by things over which we have no control — our genes, early family history, culture, life circumstances. From this standpoint, self-compassion can be understanding and supportive, rather than punitive, shaming, and destructive.

Because compassion is intrinsically concerned with the alleviation of suffering — that of our own and also that of others – this means that self-compassion spurs us to take greater responsibility to acknowledge and correct our mistakes.

Rather than using guilt, shame, or the inner-critic as a source of motivation, self-compassion allows us to turn toward and face the difficult feelings that arise when considering our own mistakes and misdeeds, meaning that we can see ourselves more clearly, so that we can do what is needed to make things better.

MYTH:

“Self-Compassion will lead me to wallow in self-pity”

FACT: Self-Compassion is NOT self-pity (Self-pity is egocentric and self-centred). Self-pity results in responding to setbacks with self-condemnation and over-identification.

Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others (isolation) and exaggerates the extent of personal suffering (“I’m the ONLY person who this thing has happened to”… “My problem is the worst thing in the world”).

When individuals feel self-pity, they become immersed in their own problems and forget that others have similar problems (“I feel so alone…”). Self-pitying often causes individuals to become carried away with and wrapped up in their own emotional dramas. They cannot step back from their situation (i.e., over-identification) and adopt a more balanced or objective perspective.

Self-Pity can also lead to self-hatred which is really just a move made by your inner-critic to motivate you to take action by causing your pain, shame, or guilt. Look out for the inner-critic – don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up – this causes more stress. Understand how your inner-critic behaves, and learn to respond to yourself in a more supportive way.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection. By taking the perspective of a compassionate other towards oneself, more “mental space” is provided to recognize the broader human context of one’s experience and to put things in greater perspective. (“Yes it is very difficult what I’m going through right now, but there are many other people who are experiencing much greater suffering.  Perhaps this isn’t worth getting quite so upset about…”)

MYTH:

“Self-Compassion is a weakness”

FACT: One of the biggest myths about self-compassion is that it is a ‘weakness’ or that it means ‘feeling sorry for’ yourself. On the contrary – Self-compassion is that antidote to shame, self-pity and the tendency to sulk about our bad luck because it makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness—this paradoxically helps us process and let go of difficult feelings more fully.

MYTH:

“Self-compassion is self-centred or narcissistic” 

FACT: People are often very hard on themselves when they notice something they want to change because they think they can shame themselves into action – the self-flagellation approach.  As discussed in detail in several other posts (see the ‘inner critic’ and the brain’s threat system) this can trigger the threat system (stress/anxiety). For some people, this can become so overwhelming that it can lead to failure, hopelessness, and even self-hatred and depression.

This approach can also backfire if you cannot face difficult truths about yourself because you are so afraid of hating yourself if you do. Thus, weaknesses may remain unacknowledged in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-criticism.

In contrast, the care intrinsic to self-compassion provides the safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation, and this is a powerful motivating force for growth and change.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

This is a huge topic! It takes time – But, like mindfulness, self-compassion is a set of practical skills which easier to learn with some sort of guidance – eg, guided audio exercises, a therapist, or perhaps an 8 week course.

Like any new way of relating to yourself, often it can feel a little awkward and clunky at first. Remember – the goal of practicing self-compassion is to become a better support person to yourself. HOW you do this, depends on what works for you. This will depend on your emotional development which is (in part) determined by your early Attachment experiences and your Window of Tolerance (I recommend reading both of those articles).

In general, during the heat of the moment – that is during, not after it – you need to remind yourself of the components of self-compassion: Be mindful that you are having a tough time; remember that you are not alone in this struggle and that this is part of life (“this experience is part of being human”), and bring a sense of kindness to yourself with your self-talk using language that works for you.

Being kind to one’s self may at first seem like a very foreign concept. After all, it is often much easier to be caring and understanding of other’s mistakes or shortcomings than our own.

Barriers to Self-Compassion: Fears, Block & Resistances

Unfortunately, for many people, the idea of engaging in self-compassion, triggers threat. This is because one of the most common barriers to developing self-compassion is our own “inner critic”, which often has origins in our developmental past. Thus, for many people self-compassion is not even an ‘option’ that they are aware of – it is often completely blocked, hugely misunderstood or overlooked, or highly underutilized.

For example, due to our developmental histories (our attachment wounds), or painful emotional or interpersonal experiences (such as childhood experiences of shame, rejection, bullying, parental hostility, neglect or unresponsiveness), some people have learned to associate warmth, closeness, and soothing, with THREAT– not safeness. Given that self-compassion encourages a response that taps into some of these emotions, Self-Compassion can also sometimes trigger threat!

If this is the case, you may find it hard experiencing positive emotions towards yourself and you may benefit from working with a clinical psychologist trained in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), who can help you cultivate a more self-compassionate (vs self-critical) stance.

Therapy will be most helpful, if it aims to help you develop the specific skills that you missed out on learning due to your upbringing – Skills that you need that can assist you with ‘being with’ the difficult parts of yourself so that you can soothe yourself when distressed and turn towards your pain and give yourself what you need. To do this well, first, you will need to understand your own specific fears, blocks and resistances that you may have towards the different parts of yourself (and their emotions), and the fears, blocks, and resistances that you may have around meeting your needs through engaging in self-care and acts of self-compassion. If interested, you can read more about these fears, blocks, and resistances, here.

Summary:

  • Self-criticism is common across all mental health difficulties and has very powerful effects on your emotions, your brain, and your physiology.
  • Self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us.
  • The most common barrier to developing self-compassion is our own “inner critic”, which often has origins in our developmental past such as parental rejection, hostility, neglect and unresponsiveness.
  • For these reasons you may find it hard experiencing positive emotions towards yourself and you may benefit from working with a clinical psychologist trained in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), who can help you cultivate a more self-compassionate (vs self-critical) stance.
  • Look out for the inner-critic – don’t ‘beat yourself up’, for beating yourself up. Understand what the inner-critic is and what it can do to you, and learn to respond to yourself in a more supportive way.
  • Becoming a better support person for yourself means fully understanding and working with all of your resistances to self-compassion. This will better allow you to connect with the parts of yourself that actually can be wise and caring, despite your inner struggles and difficulties. In this way, you will be better equipped to support yourself through life’s challenges (i.e., you will become more skilful, more supportive, more accepting, more encouraging and therefore ultimately more resilient).

Further Resources

 

Recommended

Self-Compassion Books:


Depression, Self-Criticism, Difficult Emotions:

Neff, K. (2013). Self-Compassion Step by Step. Audio Program / Audiobook. Available here

Neff, K. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook : A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive.*

*Also has companion website with guided audio exercises: here.

Germer, C. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts & Emotions. Guilford Press

Neff. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating yourself up and Leave Insecurity Behind. Hodder & Stoughton.

Irons, C. (2019). The Compassionate Mind Approach to Difficult Emotions : Using Compassion Focused Therapy.  London: Little Brown Book Group.

Irons, C. & Beaumont, E. (2017). The Compassion-Mind Workbook. A step-by-step guide to developing your compassionate self. Little, Brown Book Group.

Gilbert, P. (2010). The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges*

*Also available as an audiobook: here

Anger:

Kolts, R. L. (2012). The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger. New York, NY: New Harbinger.

Anxiety:

Tirch, D. (2012). The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. New York, NY: New Harbinger. 

Social Anxiety:

Henderson, (2011). Compassionate-Mind Guide to Building Social Confidence. New York, NY: New Harbinger. 

Trauma & PTSD:

Lee, D. (2013). The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Recovering from Trauma & PTSD: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Overcome Flashbacks, Shame, Guilt, & FearNew York, NY: New Harbinger.

Eating Disorders:

Goss, K (2019). The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Beating Over Eating: Bingeing & Disordered Eating. London: Little Brown Book Group.

You can also search for other compassion-related books, audiobooks & kindle, via large online stores such as Amazon or Bookdepository.

 

If you would like to discuss working together, I would love to hear from you. I am a PhD Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years’ experience trained in Mindfulness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). 

To book in a session with me:

CONTACT ME

I will typically respond to you within 12-24 hrs.

If you would like to discuss working together, I would love to hear from you. I am a PhD Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years’ experience trained in Mindfulness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). 

To book in a session with me:

CONTACT ME

I will typically respond to you within 12-24 hrs.