Self-Compassion — It’s Not What You Think!

Hint:  It won’t make you lazy or turn you into an unbearable egomaniac.

Self-compassion gives us caring space inside that is free of judgment and allows us see our hurts and failures and soften in response to them.  Caring and kindness directed at ourselves is much more effective and happiness producing than using guilt, shame and fear as motivators.

“Self-compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, but it’s rather a way of relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all” self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff explains. Self-esteem, is different than self-compassion because it requires that we feel special and above average in order to feel worthy. It is not logically possible for everyone to be above average at the same time, Neff, points out, and the relentless pursuit of self-esteem leads to many traps such as perfectionism, narcissism, bullying, self-absorption, self-righteous  anger, prejudice, discrimination, and so on. Not very social behaviors or traits are they? Self-compassion, however, “offers the same protection against harsh self-criticism as self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others” Neff clarifies, and naturally leads to more natural compassion for others.

How do we even begin to practice self-compassion. Kristin Neff, who has studied self-compassion for over ten years has three key points for generating compassion for ourselves.


  1. Be kind to yourself.  The best way to do this is to think about a friend who has had a set-back and ask yourself how you would speak to him or her about it. Try visualizing this. You probably wouldn’t say it was because you aren’t attractive enough, didn’t work hard enough or should have done something about that promotion sooner. You’d probably empathize and have a tender conversation about that over a cup of tea or coffee. Treat yourself the same way. You can do a short tenderness intervention for yourself. Notice where you feel the pain in your body and place one or both hands over that part of your body or even place one hand on your cheek (if you’re alone). Then speak to kindly to yourself, even give yourself an endearing name: “Oh my dear one, you’re hurting because you really wanted to get that job. This is a hard place to be in right now.”
  2. Embrace your common humanity.Well it starts by remembering that everyone, including ourselves, makes mistakes and experiences set-backs and this causes us suffering. Being harsh with ourselves just makes us feel isolated and lonely, as if we’re the only person on the planet with this flaw. We are all imperfect, and we all suffer. This is one of many ways that we are connected to every person on this planet. Self-compassion gives us an enhanced sense of belonging and being in the human journey together.
  3. Be Mindful.It’s hard to be aware of how we’re suffering when we distract ourselves with busyness and rationalizing what’s happening inside us to keep us from paying attention.Jon Kabat-Zinn described mindfulness as paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose with kindness and compassion and no attachment to the outcome of our practice.

As part of a mindfulness practice Neff suggests doing is taking a moment to do this short self-compassion practice called “soften, soothe, allow” which combines all three of the above components. After thinking about a difficulty you have find the place in your body that holds the problem and then place your hands on it.

While gently and calmly breathing, continue to notice and stay with the physical  sensations  that are arising in this part of your body, not trying to rid yourself of them.  Consciously begin to breathe kindness and compassion  gently into the space beneath your hands. Notice what you are feeling. Enjoy the feelings of softness and tenderness that are arising and soak them in to let the experience resonate and rewire neurons of self-compassion in your body and brain. How peaceful and relieving this feels to me when I can do this. Can you begin to practice the habit of filling yourself with love and compassion for a few minutes every day?


Follow Kristin Neff’s research on Self-Compassion:

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