I used to think that self-compassion meant ‘letting yourself off the hook.’ I thought that if I was ‘kind’ to myself, that it would mean I would give in or give up whatever it was I was pursuing or struggling with. How very wrong I was!
We are often hard on ourselves, and can speak to ourselves much harsher than we would ever speak to a friend or someone we love. This self-talk can be so ingrained that we aren’t even aware of it! On top of that, it can be destructive to our mental wellbeing, including how well we learn from mistakes, find constructive solutions and how well we function overall.
Self-compassion helps to shift this internal dialogue and learning this skill is a crucial part of self-leadership practice. So, what exactly is it?
What is self-compassion?
One of my biggest personal learnings has been what self-compassion really is, and what it looks like. Dr. Kristin Neff, guru in all things self-compassion, refers to it in her TED Talk as “treating ourselves with the same kindness, care and concern that we would treat a good friend.”
Dr. Neff has identified three core components of self-compassion including:
Instead of immediately judging ourselves, Dr. Neff explains that self-compassion involves “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
2. Common Humanity
Using our ability to relate to others who are also suffering can help to put our situation into perspective. To be human means to be imperfect. All too often we can feel alone and isolated in our suffering, but self-compassion recognises that “suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.”
Mindfulness involves being open and aware of our emotions, without exaggerating, suppressing or even judging them. This helps us to recognise and then feel compassion for our pain, without ‘over-identifying’ with our thoughts and feelings and being “caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”
So, self-compassion is the combination of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. As Dr. Neff explains, self-compassion is NOT:
Self-Pity: A tendency to become immersed in our own problems, and lacking perspective on interconnections with others and the commonality of suffering. Self-pity tends to exaggerate the extent of personal suffering and be ego-centric in nature, which also creates feelings of isolation and disconnection.
Self-indulgence: Self-Compassion is about doing what is best for ourselves to be happy and healthy for the long-term. Giving into short-term pleasures or shaming ourselves into action often backfires because we do not end up seeing ourselves and our own difficult truths clearly because it doesn’t feel ‘safe’ to do so – and so growth and change is then hard to make room for.
Self-esteem: Self-Compassion is not based on self-evaluations, external circumstances, our latest achievement, or what trait we may possess. You don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself with self-compassion.
7 Reasons to cultivate self-compassion
Self-Compassion practices have been linked to lower rates of poor mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
Self-Compassion is also strongly correlated with positive mental health, including happiness, life satisfaction, greater motivation and better lifestyle choices.
Self-Compassion helps us to turn towards our difficult emotions and move through these much more quickly by embracing them, than if we ignore or berate ourselves for feeling or thinking a certain way.
On a physiological level, self-compassion practices can reduce our cortisol levels and release oxytocin, which helps us to feel soothed, safe and comforted. It is in this state we can better show up and respond in a way that aligns with our values.
Self-criticism undermines our motivation, whereas self-compassion provides the space and understanding that we are human, imperfect, and cultivates a willingness to try again.
It is this key aspect that can help to build resilience and foster grit and determination for goals that we want to achieve, leading us towards success.
Being open-hearted and compassionate towards ourselves means that we have more compassion available to give to others as well.
4 Self-Compassion Resources
Four self-compassion resources to help you along your self-leadership journey include:
If browsing websites is not your cup of tea, you migth prefer to read Neff's bestselling book on the topic.
The Centre for Clinical Interventions from the Western Australia Government has a free handout and downloadable 8-part booklet to help cultivate self-compassion.
This Positive Psychology article by Catherine Moore has a number of resources and tools, such as 13 journal prompts to help you practice self-compassion.
To stumble, fall, fail and experience pain and shame and many other difficult emotions is part of being human. To go through life without these experiences would make it rather…vanilla.
Not that it makes it easy or enjoyable when we are in the middle of what feels like an emotional hurricane, but self-compassion can help us to ride the wave, truly acknowledge and accept who we are and show up to these challenges with less resistance and sense of isolation due to our suffering. Self-compassion is an integral part of self-leadership and harnessing the power of this will help you to build resilience and habits for lifelong success.
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