What is self-compassion? In brief, it is treating yourself with kindness. Not to be mistaken for arrogance, an attitude of self-compassion involves being gentle, understanding, and supportive to yourself.
But why is it so important to view yourself in this light? What if you have low self-worth or a strong inner critic – can you still practice self-compassion, or is it impossible?
Happily, even the most resistant and self-deprecating people can learn to offer themselves compassion.
And it comes with a wide range of important benefits that can help you become happier, healthier, and more successful. In this article, we'll take a closer look at the nature of self-compassion.
We'll bust some of the most important myths about self-compassion. We'll also explain some useful techniques that you can start using today.
It's helpful to start by thinking about the benefits of self-compassion at a very general level. When you are self-compassionate, you're tuned in to your own emotions to a greater extent. When you become self-compassion you become progressively more skilled at what you need.
In addition, self-compassion supports realistic, robust levels of self-confidence, and having healthy self-esteem supports mental well-being and encourages you to reach your full potential.
There are knock-on benefits for your relationships with others, too, as learning to treat yourself with kindness makes it easier to forgive others – and to admit to wrongdoing yourself.
Now, let's look a little more carefully at how self-compassion encourages psychological well-being and reduces anxiety.
Without self-compassion, we can be cruel to ourselves. We can nit-pick about flaws, reinforce negative beliefs from earlier in our lives, and limit our development by keeping ourselves small.
It stands to reason, then, that when we're kind to each other we start to believe in ourselves more, find the courage to try new things, and have the resilience to bounce back after difficulties and setbacks. Think like this – your mental health is better when you treat yourself like a friend rather than an enemy.
In addition, research on self-compassion shows links between psychological well-being and taking this attitude of kindness toward yourself.
For example, one recent study found that people with diabetes were more likely to have good mental health if they tested as having high levels of self-compassion.
Interestingly, this research also established links between self-compassion and better “self-management” behaviors – in other words, the diabetics who were self-compassionate more reliably looked after themselves.
We all get anxious and stressed sometimes, and our psychological resilience plays a huge role in how we respond to these difficult feelings. If you have low self-esteem, your default response to anxiety and stress will often involve blaming yourself.
For example, you might think you didn't get a particular job because you're not good enough, or you might even think that you get anxious because you're weak.
In contrast, having high self-esteem or self-compassion allows you to take a more rational perspective when things don't go right.
While you're able to see what you might be able to do differently next time, you're also able to recognize the role of luck and the actions of others.
Practicing self-compassion also allows you to talk to yourself more kindly when you're stressed. You can learn to affirm phrases and focus on comforting thoughts, rather than on catastrophizing and feeling bad.
So, now you know why self-compassion matters so much. But if it doesn't come naturally to you, how can you develop it?
Let's look at four self-compassion exercises that can help you cultivate a kinder attitude to yourself right away.
As noted above, practicing self-love or self-compassion can be especially tough if you have a loud, persistent inner critic. However, if you treat yourself with love, your self-image begins to shift in response to this treatment.
In time, you'll begin to notice that your inner voice changes too, becoming less critical and more compassionate. How, then, do you treat yourself with love in order to facilitate self-compassionate beliefs? Here are a few places to start:
Hold boundaries: Decide what treatment you deserve from others, and stick to that. Maintain relationships only with those who treat you with fairness, respect, and compassion. Move away from those who are inconsistently supportive or use you as a means to an end.
Respect your body: Exercise regularly, get a good night's sleep, eat good food, and know when you need to say “no” in order to rest. That said, don't run yourself into the ground in the pursuit of the ideal physique. The emphasis is on health and wellness, not on perfection.
Follow your passions: Identify the things you really love – the things that make you feel alive – and make space for them in your life come what may. Honoring these passions honors some of the most fundamental parts of you.
Part of developing true acceptance of yourself involves learning to forgive yourself for past mistakes. No one is perfect, and we all do and say things we live to regret. However, that this is true of you doesn't undermine your value or your worth.
One technique that can be helping when cultivating self-forgiveness is to flip your perspective and ask yourself how you'd think of a certain situation if you were listening to a friend. Most likely, you would cut them some slack – yes, you'd see how they could have done better, but you'd also be attuned to the extenuating circumstances.
You wouldn't think that this one thing defined by your friend, and you would likely forgive them – while also encouraging them to forgive themselves.
Now, concentrate on offering that same generosity to yourself! Notice, too, that there's a lot to be learned from life's imperfect moments.
As long as you've drawn a useful lesson from something, try to give yourself permission to move on from it.
In the future, you may well find that your success and happiness is facilitated by what you learned when you weren't performing at your best.
As noted at the outset, the idea of self-compassion is rooted in ancient Buddhist traditions and philosophies. It's unsurprising, then, that there is a link between self-compassion and mindfulness.
In particular, there are self-compassion meditation exercises that you can use to develop an attitude of kindness, love, and understanding toward yourself.
One example technique involves focusing on affirming statements. To do this meditation, start by getting comfortable and taking a series of deep breaths. Once you're relaxed and focused, think about a situation that is making you uncomfortable – not something overwhelming, but something that niggles.
Notice that way your body feels as you think about this thing, and accept those feelings without judgment. Then, say to yourself something like the following: “This is a moment of stress. We all experience moments of stress, and I am not alone. May I offer myself the compassion and love that I need.”
The above can be said aloud, or merely thought. Go over the sentence (or a similar one that you design yourself) as many times as you want, then open your eyes and sit quietly for a moment. Notice how the mindfulness exercise has settled your thoughts and changed your perspective.
Self-love is related to self-compassion. It involves not only offering yourself kindness but actively offering yourself positive regard.
Working out how to learn to love yourself partly depends on identifying some of the aspects you find hardest to accept and embrace.
Consider a shortlist of these things, and challenge yourself to flip them into positives.
For example, “I'm too outspoken” can become “I speak out for the things I believe in.
“Similarly, “I take too long to complete projects” can become “I give amazing attention to detail.”
The key message here is just that for every trait you find difficult or negative, there's an upside – and you wouldn't be who you are without that trait!
Meanwhile, it's also vital to accept that we are all imperfect. You don't need to be perfect to be deserving of love and understanding, both from yourself and from others.
Once again, you don't expect your loved ones to be flawless, so don't impose a higher standard on yourself.
Our nuances make us interesting, and you may be surprised by how other people view the trait and tendencies that you see as burdensome or negative.
While we've made a solid case for the importance of self-compassion and offered a range of techniques that you can start practicing in order to develop this trait in yourself, it's worth engaging with some persistent myths about self-compassion.
Most people have no problem with the idea of being compassionate to each other, you'll often hear resistance when it's suggested that we turn that compassion inward.
Here, then, are rebuttals to the four major misconceptions about self-compassion.
Most of us have internalized the idea that self-pity is negative. If you're self-pitying, you wallow in your misfortunate instead of being proactive, you complain, and you feel sorry for yourself. And if you practice self-compassion, aren't you just pitying yourself?
In short, the answer is no.
While self-pity often involves hiding from responsibility, self-compassion puts an emphasis on accepting and understanding difficult feelings.
Research shows that when we do this, it's actually easier for us to understand our emotions and to let go of negative experiences (which is pretty much the opposite of wallowing). Instead of getting into a spiral of negative thinking, self-compassionate people face up to reality, process it, and move on.
The latest psychological studies support the above distinction between self-pity and self-compassion. Research on self-compassion suggests that if you're self-compassionate, you typically spend less time ruminating about the bad things that have happened to you.
Seemingly, this reduction in wallowing supports a robust sense of self and better mental health, reducing the duration of periods of anxiety and depression.
So, while self-pity is about adopting a victim position, self-compassion is about adopting a gentle but accurate picture of reality. Self-compassion is about taking responsibility where it's appropriate and releasing it where it's not.
Another myth about the nature of self-compassion holds that there's something inherently narcissistic about this mindset.
In other words, that being self-compassionate means encouraging ourselves to believe that we are above average, that we are better than others, and that we should have accordingly high self-esteem.
So, the worry goes, if we're self-compassionate, won't we start putting others down in order to maintain this illusory concept of ourselves as “special”? And won't our high self-esteem stand between us and achieving our true potential?
According to some psychological research on social connectedness, narcissism is on the rise, so it's easy to see where this myth about self-compassion comes from.
To see why it really is a myth, consider that at its core, self-compassion really has nothing to do with making a judgment on yourself.
It has more to do with acknowledging and accepting that we are all imperfect than it has to do with having an artificially inflated sense of competence, attractiveness or intelligence.
In addition, there's reliability and consistency to self-compassion. It is constant whether we are at our best or at our worst. It doesn't require us to see ourselves as anything other than deserving of love.
Finally, let's consider the myth that being self-compassionate makes you weaker. What's the idea here? Essentially, it is that if we're kind to ourselves, we can't get through the toughest times in life.
Instead of being reflective and gentle, we need to be thick-skinned, determined, and guarded. So, if you want to be able to face challenges, overcome weakness, and endure setbacks. Perhaps developing self-compassion just isn't smart.
The truth here is surprising that psychologists are increasingly interested in connections between self-compassion and resilience. The data clearly indicate that you're better able to cope with difficulties if you score higher on the self-compassion spectrum.
For example, if we're going through grief, a divorce, or job loss, we move forward more quickly and effectively if we're able to be kind to ourselves.
In sum, it's not gritting our teeth and pushing down the feelings that work for us in times of hardship. Rather, it's a thoughtful, open-minded, and gentle attitude toward ourselves and our loss.
While it may hurt more in the short term to face our feelings, it's a crucial step in processing difficult experiences.
At this point, you should have a deeper understanding of what self-compassion involves. You should understand that your mental health will be better if you're self-compassionate.
And also you should have an understanding of where some of the most unhelpful misconceptions about self-compassion come from.
You should also be equipped to practice some easy techniques that help you become kinder and gentler when dealing with yourself and your feelings.
However, if you're struggling to become self-compassionate or you want to take your existing self-compassion to the next level, why not try self-hypnosis? This technique taps into your subconscious, helping you rewrite the limiting beliefs that are holding you back from self-love.