What Is Self-Compassion? How Can It Help?

The idea of self-compassion is one that may generate an eye-roll.  Coming from a culture that prides itself on bootstraps, resilience, and strength, the term “self-compassion” may feel too soft and fluffy – or may be linked to self-esteem – though the two terms are not synonymous at all.

Enter researcher and professor Dr. Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas. Dr. Neff has made the study of self-compassion her life’s work.  As a parent to a child with autism herself, Dr. Neff has studied the impact that self-compassion has on caregivers, children, students, and teachers, among other subgroups.  A common factor is the impact that self-compassion can have on mental health.

The distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion can be explained as a difference between judgment, and acceptance.  Self-esteem includes an evaluation of one’s own worth and abilities.  In contrast, self-compassion includes treating ones’ self with kindness and understanding.  It means treating yourself as you would a loved one, and accepting that imperfection is congruent with being human.

One of the more impressive facets of self-compassion is the measurable proof that it works.  For example, research studies demonstrated that when students learn self-compassion and apply the kindness and understanding to themselves and their performance, we see more resilience within the classroom, and increased academic motivation.  Other research has shown that self-compassion can improve anxiety and depression outcomes, and can help with the “bounce back” needed after a stressful event, such as a divorce, loss of job, or move.

The non-judgmental aspect is crucial to compassion – for others, and for ourselves.  This can be very tricky for a culture that, like Brene Brown says in her famous TED talk about empathy, enjoys judgment so much.  We have internet memes, social media, television shows, and continuous rank systems that capitalize on judgment.  Yet our tendency to judge others tends to reflect on our tendency to judge ourselves.  A key step to cultivating self-compassion can be to recognize judgment of others, and to consciously use compassion towards others.

For younger people, self-compassion can be modeled and directly taught.  When a student does poorly, a response can be about how we are all growing, we are all learning, we are all works in progress.  Likely students are not telling their peers, “Well, if you had only studied more,” or “You didn’t try hard enough.”  A classmate may instead give encouragement and understanding; “It was a really hard quiz. I’m sure you did your best.  Now you know what to study harder for on the final!”  Likely, he or she is not turning this same compassion inward, and may even be using self-criticism, or a reflection of what they have heard from parents and teachers.  While self-compassion is not a replacement for hard work and studious behavior, a child or adolescent is more likely to overcome academic challenges when they are not coping with shame – from themselves, or others.

For adults, self-compassion may not come naturally.  Conscious rewiring can help.  Asking yourself, “What would I tell a friend in this situation?” or even, “What would my therapist say about that?” Dr. Neff also talks about the power of calming the nervous system, and using self-compassion actively, in our bodies.  Children and adults can practice taking deep breaths while just holding their hand on their heart – touch helps us feel safe, and connected.  Holding ones own hand, or even giving yourself a subtle hug can help us communicate to ourselves that we are safe, accepted, and cared for.

For more information on self-compassion, and how it can help, contact us!  We are here to help.