Many people aspire to be more compassionate. Treating others as we wish to be treated lies at the heart of many religious and spiritual traditions. How often do we extend compassion towards ourselves? We might even find that we are kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Some say that having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others.
Dr Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin. During her last year of graduate school, she became interested in Buddhism and decided to conduct research on self-compassion. She has conducted numerous studies and is recognised internationally as a pioneering researcher on the topic.
Initially, it took her a while to get her head around the idea of being “nice” to yourself, to have compassion for yourself when you’re going through a really hard time. She even wondered if she would be seen as lazy and selfish if she were too self-compassionate. Self-criticism, on the other hand, is socially acceptable. And don’t we need high expectations to achieve great things? Neff realised that the relentless pursuit of meeting perfect goals and high self-esteem created harsh self-criticism.
Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion
Self-compassion offered an alternative to feeling the need to see yourself as perfect, or better than others. We often tend to inflate our own egos and put others down to feel good in comparison. We need to be able to acknowledge our own weaknesses to grow as people. However, many people end up beating themselves up or feel despair when faced with their flaws. Self-compassion steps in where self-esteem lets us down – every time we fail or feel inadequate.
“ …the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves—fragile and imperfect yet magnificent as we are. Rather than pitting ourselves against other people in an endless comparison game, we embrace what we share with others and feel more connected and whole in the process. And the good feelings of self-compassion don’t go away when we mess up or things go wrong.”
Her studies suggest that self-compassionate people are better able to accept who they are regardless of the degree of praise they receive from others. Conversely, self-esteem only thrives when the reviews are good and may lead to evasive and counterproductive tactics when there’s a possibility of facing unpleasant truths about oneself.
There is also growing evidence that self-compassion is an important predictor of well-being and resilience.
What is Self-Compassion?
Thomas Merton, an American Catholic writer and mystic, believes that compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.
In the words of Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, compassion is not some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we’re trying to live up to. “Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.”
Meanwhile, Dr Neff’s work comprises of three components that work together for self-compassion: Self-kindness (rather than self-judgment), a sense of common humanity (rather than isolation) and mindfulness (rather than over-identification). These are outlined further below.
Self-kindness: Being caring and understanding with yourself. Rather than aggressively berating yourself for personal limitations, offer yourself warmth and unconditional acceptance. Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity. You can see things exactly as they are – no more and no less. You may realise that some of your behaviours are unproductive and in need of change without beating yourself up. When there’s pain or stress in your life, a self-compassionate response might require pausing first to offer oneself soothing and comfort, instead of immediately trying to control or fix the problem.
“It’s like a mother, when the baby is crying, she picks up the baby and she holds the baby tenderly in her arms. Your pain, your anxiety is your baby. You have to take care of it. You have to go back to yourself, to recognise the suffering in you, embrace the suffering, and you get a relief.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Common humanity: Acknowledging that humans are imperfect, that all people fail, make mistakes and have serious life challenges, help us when we feel isolated in our struggle. As Neff puts it: Self-compassion connects one’s own flawed condition to the shared human condition, so that features of the self are considered from a broad, inclusive perspective.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness in the context of self-compassion involves an awareness of painful thoughts and emotions in a balanced way. It’s necessary to neither ignore nor amplify one’s personal suffering. If we’re always trying to fix or rationalise our pain, we’re repressing it. When the story of our shame or suffering carries us away, Neff calls it over-identification. Mindfulness is a way of staying with the pain without resistance.
How to Be Self-Compassionate
“Self-compassion is approaching ourselves, our inner experience with spaciousness, with the quality of allowing which has a quality of gentleness. Instead of our usual tendency to want to get over something, to fix it, to make it go away, the path of compassion is totally different. Compassion allows.” Robert Gonzales
Dr Neff suggests the following exercises in self-compassion:
Ask yourself how you would treat a friend: Can you respond to yourself in the same way you would respond to a dear friend in a similar situation that you find yourself in?
A Self-Compassion Break, or the practice of loving-kindness: Repeat phrases such as: May I be healthy and strong. May I be peaceful and happy with things as they are. May I look after myself happily in this world. May I be free from mental and physical suffering.
Explore self-compassion through writing: Write yourself a letter about an issue from a place of acceptance and compassion.
Get in touch with conflicting parts of yourself: In this exercise, Kristin Neff suggests sitting in three different chairs and allowing the inner personalities of the criticiser, the criticised and the compassionate observer to speak. Experience how each aspect feels in the present moment.
Change your critical self-talk: Acknowledge your critical inner voice and respond to it by reframing its observations, rather than simply ignoring it. Allow your inner compassionate self to speak, and soften the self-critical voice with compassion. This exercise can change how you relate to yourself long-term.
Keep a self-compassion journal: This journal is specifically aimed at processing the difficult events of your day through a lens of self-compassion. It also connects your feelings to the wider human experience and makes self-kindness and mindfulness a daily practice.
Identify what you really want: Learning to motivate yourself towards your goals with love rather than fear. Find a kinder, more caring way to motivate yourself to make a change if needed. Use supportive language.
Take care of the caregiver: an exercise in learning how to nurture yourself at the same time that you’re nurturing others. Give yourself permission to meet your own needs – listen to music, visit with a friend or have a massage. Simply using soothing touch or a loving-kindness meditation can allow you to keep your heart open while you care for others.
See thorough explanations for each exercise and audio downloads on Dr Neff’s website.
“be softer with you
you are a breathing thing.
a memory to someone.
a home to a life.”
Watch the premiere of the new UPLIFT film, Building Compassion, on The International Day of Peace, September 21. The film shares cutting-edge research into the neurology and cultural practices of compassion and features interviews with a range of experts including Dr James Doty, Saamdu Chetri, Dr. David Vago, Scarlett Lewis and many more. Building Compassion explores how compassion is key to understanding what it is to be truly human and to creating a loving world.