Self-Compassion—and Why It’s Important

People who practice self-compassion have lower levels of anxiety and depression and less fear of failure. Here’s more info on compassion, including some self compassion exercises.

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May 27, 2022 UPDATED
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Practicing self-compassion exercises help us move from self-criticism to self-kindness. 

Self compassion helps us quiet our “inner critic.” The inner critic is that voice inside our heads that says negative things about us in our thoughts. 

Self compassion helps us quiet our “inner critic.”

What are your inner critic’s favorite lines? 

Maybe that little voice in your head loves to tell you that you’re a failure, that you’re not smart enough, or that your friends are only pretending to like you. 

Those thoughts are like splinters—they hurt, and they can be so hard to remove. 

The inner critic is that voice inside our heads that says negative things about us. 

If this sounds familiar, trying some self-compassion exercises can help. 

The power of self compassion

People with high rates of self-compassion also report higher levels of psychological wellbeing, including lower levels of anxiety and depression, less fear of failure, and less perfectionism. 

They report higher levels of happiness and curiosity, and are better able to cope with negative life events like divorce, or the loss of a job. 

You can’t hate yourself to happiness, however you can find more peace with self-compassion.

People with high rates of self-compassion report higher levels of psychological wellbeing, including lower levels of anxiety and depression.

What is the true meaning of compassion? 

Compassion is an emotional response. It’s seeing and recognizing someone else’s suffering, and feeling a motivation to help. 

In 2016 researchers wanted to study compassion in order to scientifically measure and evaluate it.

In their article published in Clinical Psychology Review, they propose compassion consists of five elements: 

  • Recognizing suffering

  • Understanding the universality of human suffering

  • Feeling for the person suffering

  • Tolerating uncomfortable feelings 

  • Motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering

There’s a strong evolutionary reason humans developed compassion, according to Dr. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

You can’t hate yourself to happiness, however you can find more peace with self-compassion.

Keltner points out that human babies are the most vulnerable offspring on the planet, and because infants need constant care—unlike even chimpanzee newborns who can sit up and eat on their own—it rearranged our nervous systems.

The human brain is wired to not only feel compassion for another person’s pain, but also to want to alleviate that other person’s discomfort through nurturing, Keltner says.

And what’s the definition of self compassion?

According to self-compassion pioneer Dr. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, self-compassion is is “an attitude that involves treating oneself with warmth and understanding in difficult times and recognizing that making mistakes is part of being human.” 

We tend to try to avoid the suffering our inner critic inflicts on us by numbing it, making ourselves too busy to think, or distracting ourselves. 

When we practice self-compassion, we aren’t trying to make our suffering disappear. 

Instead, we’re giving space to our pain and being gentle with it and ourselves. 

I can hear the protests already: "The whole point is to stop feeling awful!"

"Why would I create space to feel worse?”

When we practice self-compassion, we aren’t trying to make our suffering disappear. 

That’s a natural response—we’re built to avoid suffering.

Unfortunately, we tend to avoid the suffering our inner critic inflicts on us by numbing it, making ourselves too busy to think, or distracting ourselves. 

These are all coping attempts, however they’re maladaptive coping methods that avoid the problem, rather than addressing it.

A Monarch original illustration of a woman holding flowers and showing the definition of self-compassion.

Self-compassion moves us from self-criticism to self-kindness. 

Our inner critic is a string of thoughts inside our head—just like other thoughts we may have running through our brains. 

Self-compassion moves us from self-criticism to self-kindness. 

Sure, sometimes (OK, fine, often!) our inner critic’s louder than other thoughts we have.

The inner critic is chemicals and energy firing in our brains.

Self-compassion changes the volume on those thoughts and gives you something else to focus on.

A Monarch original infographic illustrating how self-compassion can turn self-criticism into self-kindness.

How does self-compassion differ from self-care?

While self-compassion and self-care both involve self-kindness, self-care is about filling up your tank when it’s running low—like when you’re burnt out at work or overwhelmed with taking care of others. (Or both!) 

Turns out, shame and criticism doesn’t help—but self-compassion does. 

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is being kind to yourself when your inner critic wants to shame you to perfection. 

Turns out, shame and criticism doesn’t help—but self-compassion does. 

According to the authors of a 2022 paper published in World Psychiatry, there’s a growing body of research demonstrating the potential of self‐compassion in relieving suffering across a range of disorders, including depression, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders, dementia, and personality disorders.

A Monarch original infographic showing the difference between self-compassion and self-care.

3 elements of self-compassion

Neff first initially defined self-compassion in 2003. 

In the twenty years since, she’s published and spoken widely about the three main components of self-compassion.

In a 2003 article published in Self and Identity, Neff described self compassion of having three main components:

  • Self-kindness—being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical

  • Common humanity—perceiving one's experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating

  • Mindfulness—holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.

Let’s look at each of these elements in more detail to better understand them.

1. Self-kindness

When we feel bad about something, we tend to avoid it. 

So, if our brains are telling us that we’re terrible at our jobs, that’s not going to motivate us to do better. 

Self-kindness means speaking to yourself with gentleness, love, and respect.

However, our brains are trying to help! (Sometimes they’re just not very good at helping.)

Self-kindness means speaking to yourself with gentleness, love, and respect.

 Instead of telling yourself you’re not doing good enough, you might instead say: 

“I’ve been working really hard, and here are the ways I’m doing that.” 

“I am working towards my goals, and I will continue working towards my goals.” 

Or even simply, “I deserve kind words.”

2. Common humanity

We spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others and feeling like we’re falling short. 

As a result, we often feel isolated, alone with our problems, and convinced that no one else feels the same way.

Common humanity means acknowledging that everyone’s imperfect. It’s a symptom of being human. 

Instead of telling yourself you’re not doing good enough, you might instead say: “I’ve been working really hard, and here are the ways I’m doing that.” 

No matter what your brain says, other people have felt and are now feeling the same way as you do right now. 

You’re not alone. 

Those other people who feel the same way you do may not be sitting in the room with you at the moment. 

However, when your inner critic tells you that you’re the only person struggling, remind yourself that all of humanity is with you in your imperfection. 

Consequently, you don’t have to be perfect, after all.

3. Mindfulness

The definition of mindfulness is non-judgmentally noticing the present moment.

Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind. It’s about being here with your thoughts and feelings, without judging them or being pulled along by them. 

Sometimes our thoughts and emotions feel like reality. 

For example, perhaps the inner critic telling us, “I’m worthless,” feels like the truth when it comes from inside your head. 

Since thoughts and feelings are just chemical reactions inside our bodies, they may not be the best reflection of reality. 

When we believe our thoughts and feelings are an accurate reflection of reality, it’s called over-identification. 

The act of over-identification often results in feeling very stuck in those thoughts and feelings.

However, since thoughts and feelings are just chemical reactions inside our bodies, they may not be the best reflection of reality. 

More importantly, our thoughts and feelings can change

Mindfulness is a practice of noticing those thoughts and feelings as they come up. 

We can imagine the thoughts that pop up in our heads as clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream, floating in and out of our brains without you judging or controlling them. 

Instead, we approach them with curiosity and gentleness.

A Monarch original illustration of a woman reading and infographic about 3 aspects of self-compassion, including mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity.

How to practice self-compassion

Below are six steps to practice self-compassion right now. 

You can find more exercises on Neff’s website.

Remember—sometimes self-compassion can feel painful at first. 

That’s normal. 

These are feelings you’ve been trying to numb, avoid, or distract yourself from for a long time. 

If this feels too overwhelming, it’s important to find a licensed therapist trained in a compassion-focused approach to help guide you. 

6 steps to practice self-compassion

Now, get comfortable and follow these steps as a self-compassion exercise.

  1. Think of the last time you were upset with yourself. What did your inner critic tell you? Maybe even remembering this brings up the thoughts and feelings you felt in that moment.

  2. Take a deep breath. Notice those emotions and thoughts, but don’t try to change or push them away. They can be there. Imagine them as clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream, and remind yourself that they are only chemicals and energy.

  3. Remind yourself that you are with other people in this feeling. You’re not the only one who feels this way. You’re not alone.

  4. Think about what your inner critic was trying to protect you from: rejection, pain, embarrassment, or criticism from others. It wanted to protect you, but it hurt you instead. 

  5. Acknowledge your inner critic. Tell it: “I hear you, and I see that you’re trying to help, but we’re going to do this differently today.”

  6. Now, talk to yourself with gentleness, love, and respect. Tell yourself, “I am worthy of love and kindness.”

How do you feel? We hope this was helpful.

Find a compassion-focused therapist

Consider continuing to explore self-compassion with a licensed counselor or therapist. Find a mindfulness compassion-focused therapist near you

The Monarch Directory from SimplePractice can help you find therapists with a compassion-focused approach. Additionally, you can browse counselors near you who specializes in mindfulness- based stress reduction (MBSR) and/or mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT). READ NEXT: Are You Burning Out? Here's How to Bounce Back


Need to find a therapist near you? Check out the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice to find licensed mental health therapists with availability and online booking.


Article originally published May 24, 2022. Updated May 27, 2022.

References

Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2022). The role of self-compassion in psychotherapy. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 21(1), 58–59. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20925

Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. In J.

Doty (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Chap. 27. Oxford University Press.

Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self‐compassion program. Journal of clinical psychology, 69(1), 28-44.

Neff, K. D. (2003) The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion, Self and Identity, 2:3, 223-250, DOI: 10.1080/15298860309027


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