The simplicity of the term “self-compassion” defies the complexity of its practice, the benefits it affords and the courage it can require. Breaking it down to the words involved, “compassion” is a sensitivity to or awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to ameliorate it.1,2 When we place the word “self ” in front of it, we shift our focus from others and place it on ourselves and our own experiences. Self-compassion is the combination of three different practices: common humanity, mindfulness and self-kindness.
Self-compassion originates from the insight tradition of Buddhism.3 In order to understand and appreciate the value of self-compassion, it’s critical to explore the three components listed above.
Common humanity is the knowledge that everyone makes mistakes and that imperfection is something that all people have in common.5 This knowledge can help debunk the isolation that can accompany a mistake or disappointment in one’s performance or experiences.5 This idea can seem relatively straightforward to embrace, at least on its surface. That said, it’s worth pausing to consider the many implications of this idea.
Perfectionism is something with which many struggle, and one aspect that we find difficult is that we are unworthy if we are imperfect. This is an isolating belief, one that serves to amplify and maintain the difference between us and others. Brene Brown shared an insightful and powerful thought on this subject: “You are imperfect; you are wired for struggle but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
Common humanity is an invitation to keep in mind that our struggles are not our own fault. They are not due to shortcomings or inadequacies of ourselves as humans; they are simply part of the experience of being human.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” (commonly misattributed to Victor Frankl; source unknown)
It’s important to understand the “technical” definition of mindfulness, not just what has become a buzzword meaning “aware.” Mindfulness involves having an awareness of what is occurring (e.g., events, emotions, thoughts) in the present moment, while refraining from assessment or judgment of the experience.5 Having an awareness of what is happening sounds simple, but it’s not easy.
There are often multiple things competing for our attention at any given time, whether it be our phones, smartwatches, email, children, clients and so on. We are often juggling these demands, which can result in not being fully present for any of them. Changing this default state of being toward one where—at least sometimes—we are fully present and engaged in what is happening is a powerful and difficult shift to make. Shifting toward being present also allows us to recognize the space between stimulus and response, ensuring that we are responding, not just reacting.
Adopting a nonjudgmental stance can also be challenging. As a society, we’ve become accustomed to labeling many people, experiences, emotions and things as “good” or “bad” instead of just noticing and accepting. The idea “don’t believe everything you think” can be quite helpful as we work toward practicing mindfulness.
On a daily basis, many things float through our minds at random and in response to stimuli. Not all of them are meaningful or true. Meditation, for example, is one way to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a necessary component of self-compassion because we need to recognize when there are situations in which practicing self-compassion would be of benefit.5
Self-kindness is best considered to be treating oneself the same way you would treat a good friend. Think about the last conversation you had with yourself after you had a mistake—would you have said those same things to a friend?
Self-kindness involves changing the way we treat ourselves and adopting an attitude of support, warmth and acceptance.6 It also involves identifying what steps are needed to stand tall and be grounded in one’s own beliefs and truth. From there you can go forward and fight for what you want, need and deserve. This might include setting and asserting boundaries, being steadfast in our beliefs and living our values.
There is a dichotomy to self-compassion; it has two seemingly opposite arms that come together to create a powerful whole, with each balancing and lifting the other up.6 Admittedly, that might seem a little abstract, so let’s consider the genius that is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The peanut butter and the jelly have little in common, yet each contributes something essential to the sandwich, creating an overall product that is more nutritious (and delicious) than either alone. The jelly is the “comforting, soothing and validating”6 arm, while the peanut butter is the arm that centers around “protecting, providing and motivating”6 ourselves.
Awareness of these two complementary ways self-compassion can act is critical to understanding its value proposition. Further, appreciating the dichotomy busts many of the common barriers or criticisms of self-compassion—namely that it is weak, selfish and/or akin to self-pity. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It takes great courage to be present with our struggles and to act to ameliorate them, whether that be through the peanut butter arm (action), the jelly arm (being with ourselves), or both.
Research has shown that individuals who demonstrate self-compassion engage in healthier behaviors (i.e., exercise, healthy eating), experience more self-confidence, and are less depressed, anxious and stressed, among other benefits.6,7
For some, the term self-compassion itself can be repellant or even something to be feared and avoided—a third rail, so to speak. I fell into that category for a good while. I kept the concept at arm’s length. I was afraid that if I slowed down and truly looked at the hard things that had happened in my life, I’d be overwhelmed by them.
Becoming a veterinarian requires a good measure of self-sacrifice, grit and determination. And the tools we used get to where we are today might have included distancing ourselves from the sacrifices, losses and tough experiences along the way. Over time, this can result in disconnection within ourselves and the need to use valuable energy to deny parts of our experiences and ourselves.
Practicing self-compassion provides another option to this disconnection.
We can also appreciate that when we act with self-compassion, we diminish the threat and trauma we experience, which in turn supports a more meaningful response to the difficult situation in which we find ourselves.
When considering how to incorporate the practice of self-compassion into your daily life, there are a few key areas that provide significant rewards.
The first is using it to influence your self-talk on a daily basis. Embracing self-compassion can help you quiet your inner critic and use more encouraging and supportive language.
The second is to use it to fuel setting and asserting boundaries you want and need to be your best self.
Finally, self-compassion can be leveraged when we are looking to grow in any area of our life—personal or professional. Learning is often a challenging process and practicing self-compassion can help de-risk the process.
Remember that practicing self-compassion has benefits that extend beyond ourselves. This is because we cannot truly extend deep, meaningful compassion to others when we cannot or are not extending compassion to ourselves.
1. Sinclair, S.; Norris, J.M.; McConnell, S.J.; et al. Compassion: a scoping review of the healthcare literature. BMC Palliative Care 2016, 15(1).
2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/ dictionary/compassion, Accessed May 6, 2019.
3. Neff, K.D. and Davidson, O. Self-compassion: Embracing suffering with kindness. Mindfulness in Positive Psychology, Rutledge. 2016.
4. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/ sn/sn36/sn36.006.than.html
5. Neff, K.D. “Self‐compassion, self‐esteem, and well‐being.” Social Personality Psych Compass2011;5(1): 1-12.
6. Neff, K.D.; Germer, C. The mindful self-compassion workbook. 2018. Guilford Press. New York, NY.
7. Magnus, C.; Kowalski, K.; McHugh, T.L. The role of self-compassion in women’s self-determined motives to exercise and exercise-related outcomes. Self and identity 2010; 9(4): 363-382.