Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Derived from latin, the term refers to how we’re with (com) suffering (passion). Think about times when you’ve felt compassion for a close friend who was suffering. First, to experience compassion you have to actually notice that your friend is struggling or feeling badly about themself.  Second, if what you feel is compassion (rather than pity), you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.” Finally, you respond to your friend with warmth, understanding, and kindness – feeling the desire to help in some way. These are the three main elements of compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness.

Self-compassion simply involves doing a U-turn and giving yourself the same compassion you’d naturally show a friend when you’re struggling or feeling badly about yourself.  It means being supportive when you’re facing a life challenge, feel inadequate, or make a mistake. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality or getting carried away by your negative thoughts and emotions, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with your failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open to this reality and work with it instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and your fellow humans in the experience of life

1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment.

Self-compassion means being kind and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  We’re warm and supportive when confronted with the imperfection of life rather than cold or harsh. We’re helpful and encouraging, like a good friend, coach or mentor would be.  This inner support allows us to feel safe and puts us in a better frame of mind to cope with challenges or make needed changes in our lives.

2. Common humanity vs. Isolation.

Self-compassion is rooted in  our common humanity. When we struggle or make mistakes, there’s often an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person in the world having this painful experience. All humans suffer, however. Not the same way or the same amount, but the very definition of being “human” means being vulnerable, flawed and imperfect. When we are self-compassionate, we recognize that our suffering connects us rather than separates us from others. 

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.

Self-compassion requires taking a balanced, mindful approach to our suffering so that we neither suppress or exaggerate it.  Treating ourselves like we would a friend means we step outside our usual way of looking at things, putting our own situation into better perspective. Mindfulness allows us to turn toward our pain with acceptance of the present moment reality. It prevents us from becoming  “over-identified” with difficult thoughts and feelings, so we aren’t swept away by negative reactivity. 

Cool looking woman in dreadlocks.

The quintessential question of self-compassion is “What do I need right now?” and more specifically “What do I need to help alleviate my suffering?” The answer to this question changes depending on the circumstances. Sometimes what we need is to accept ourselves in all our human imperfection, to love ourselves as we are in the moment. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily want to stay as we are in the moment. If a herd of cattle is stampeding toward you, it’s not the time for self-acceptance, it’s time for action. Most people think of self-compassion as soft and gentle, but self-compassion can be fierce as well as tender.

Tender self-compassion involves “being with” ourselves in an accepting way: comforting ourselves, reassuring ourselves that we aren’t alone, and being present with our pain. Fierce self-compassion involves “acting in the world” to alleviate suffering. It tends to involve protecting, providing for, and motivating ourselves. Sometimes we need to stand tall and say no, draw boundaries, or fight injustice. Or we may need to say yes to ourselves, to do what’s needed to be happy rather than subordinating our needs to those of others. And if we’re stuck in a bad situation or habits that are harmful, it means doing something different. Not because we’re unacceptable as we are, but because we care.

If tender self-compassion is metaphorically like a parent soothing his crying child, fierce self-compassion is like Momma Bear who ferociously protects her cubs when threatened, or catches fish to feed them, or moves them to a new territory with better resources. Just as tenderness can be turned inward so that we nurture and care for ourselves, the fierce energy of Momma Bear can also be turned inward to stand up for ourselves. What’s essential is that like yin and yang, these two faces of self-compassion are balanced and integrated so that we can be whole. When both are present, it creates a caring force that can be used to transform ourselves and the world around us.

Dr. Kristin Neff talks about fierce self-compassion

Thousands of research studies have shown that people who are more self-compassionate benefit in terms of their mental and physical health. Studies are typically conducted by assessing natural levels of self-compassion using self-report measures like the Self-Compassion Scale and correlating scores with other outcomes, by examining what happens to those who are put in a self-compassionate frame of mind in a laboratory setting, or else following those who learn to be more self-compassionate by taking a training course like MSC. Findings using multiple methods converge to show that self-compassion is very good for you.

Self-compassionate people are more likely to:

Self-compassionate people are less likely to:

For a research review, see:  Neff, K. D. (2023).  Self-Compassion: Theory, Method, Research, and Intervention.  Annual Review of Psychology, 74:193-217.  PDF

Myth: It will undermine my motivation

The number one block to adopting self-compassion is the fear that it will make us complacent or unproductive and that we need to be self-critical to motivate change. What should I use?

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

Self-compassion is a more effective motivator than harsh self-criticism. We try to achieve not to avoid self-judgment, but because we care about ourselves. This supportive mindset better enables us to learn from our mistakes and failures. Research shows that self-compassion engenders a learning and growth orientation that improves performance.

Myth: It means letting myself off the hook

Many people worry that self-compassion will lead them to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes or harmful actions.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

When we're self-compassionate after doing something that we regret, it provides the sense of safety needed to acknowledge what we've done. Research shows that people who are self-compassionate about their past mistakes are more like to take personal responsibility for their misdeeds and to try to repair the situation.

Myth: It's just feeling sorry for myself

Many people believe that self-compassion involves wallowing in self-pity and simply complaining about how hard they have it.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

Self-pity involves "why me?" thinking and is self-focused, while self-compassion frames the experience of imperfection in light of the shared human experience. Research shows that self-compassion reduces self-focus, increases perspective-taking, and helps us feel connected to others when we struggle.

Myth: It's self-indulgent

Some think that being kind to yourself just means taking it easy or doing what feels good in the moment.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

Self-indulgence involves giving oneself short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term harm. When we care about ourselves, we're willing to undergo discomfort for our wellbeing. Research shows that self-compassionate people are more likely to exercise, eat well, get regular medical checkups, and generally engage in health-promoting behavior.

Myth: It's the same as self-esteem

People sometimes believe that self-compassion means judging oneself positively and having high self-esteem.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

 Typically to have high self-esteem we need to feel special and above average. We have self-esteem when we succeed, but not when we fail. With self-compassion we don't need to be perfect or better than anyone else to feel good about ourselves, we just need to be a flawed human being like everyone else. Research shows that compared to self-esteem, self-compassion is less associated with comparisons with others and is less contingent on appearance, social approval, or successful performance. It also provides a more stable sense of self-worth over time.

Myth: It's selfish

Most of us have been told that we should sacrifice for others, and fear that meeting our own needs is selfish.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

Compassion isn't a zero-sum game. The more compassion that flows inward, the more resources we have available to be there for others. Research shows that self-compassion people are more giving and supportive to others in relationships. Professional and family caregivers are more able to care for others without becoming drained and burned out.

Myth: It will make me soft or weak

Some people associate being harsh with themselves as being tough and worry that self-compassion will make them vulnerable or weak.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

When you go into battle, what's going to make you stronger - being an ally who has your own back or an enemy who cuts you down? The supportive stance of self-compassion provides strength to face the battles of life. Research shows that self-compassionate people are better able to deal with stressful situations like natural disasters, military combat, health challenges, raising special needs children, and divorce.

The Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program was developed by Christopher K. Germer, PhD, leader in the integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy, and Kristin Neff, PhD, pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion. MSC combines the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion, providing a powerful tool for emotional resilience. The program includes conceptual learning, meditations, and informal self-compassion practices designed to be used in daily life.

A number of randomized-controlled trials have shown that the MSC program greatly enhances mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. It boosts happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, decreases burnout, physical pain, and much more.

In MSC you'll learn:

Chris & Kristin Sept 2022

MSC is offered in a variety of formats and lengths, both online and in person, across the globe. There are also adaptations of the program for teens and professional caregivers. Please visit the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion to take the training online and to learn more.

What is Self-Compassion?

Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. Derived from latin, the term refers to how we’re with (com) suffering (passion). Think about times when you’ve felt compassion for a close friend who was suffering. First, to experience compassion you have to actually notice that your friend is struggling or feeling badly about themself.  Second, if what you feel is compassion (rather than pity), you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.” Finally, you respond to your friend with warmth, understanding, and kindness – feeling the desire to help in some way. These are the three main elements of compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness.

Self-compassion simply involves doing a U-turn and giving yourself the same compassion you’d naturally show a friend when you’re struggling or feeling badly about yourself.  It means being supportive when you’re facing a life challenge, feel inadequate, or make a mistake. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality or getting carried away by your negative thoughts and emotions, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with your failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open to this reality and work with it instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and your fellow humans in the experience of life

The Elements of Self-Compassion

1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment.

Self-compassion means being kind and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  We’re warm and supportive when confronted with the imperfection of life rather than cold or harsh. We’re helpful and encouraging, like a good friend, coach or mentor would be.  This inner support allows us to feel safe and puts us in a better frame of mind to cope with challenges or make needed changes in our lives.

2. Common humanity vs. Isolation.

Self-compassion is rooted in  our common humanity. When we struggle or make mistakes, there’s often an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person in the world having this painful experience. All humans suffer, however. Not the same way or the same amount, but the very definition of being “human” means being vulnerable, flawed and imperfect. When we are self-compassionate, we recognize that our suffering connects us rather than separates us from others. 

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.

Self-compassion requires taking a balanced, mindful approach to our suffering so that we neither suppress or exaggerate it.  Treating ourselves like we would a friend means we step outside our usual way of looking at things, putting our own situation into better perspective. Mindfulness allows us to turn toward our pain with acceptance of the present moment reality. It prevents us from becoming  “over-identified” with difficult thoughts and feelings, so we aren’t swept away by negative reactivity. 

Fierce Self-Compassion
Cool looking woman in dreadlocks.

The quintessential question of self-compassion is “What do I need right now?” and more specifically “What do I need to help alleviate my suffering?” The answer to this question changes depending on the circumstances. Sometimes what we need is to accept ourselves in all our human imperfection, to love ourselves as we are in the moment. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily want to stay as we are in the moment. If a herd of cattle is stampeding toward you, it’s not the time for self-acceptance, it’s time for action. Most people think of self-compassion as soft and gentle, but self-compassion can be fierce as well as tender.

Tender self-compassion involves “being with” ourselves in an accepting way: comforting ourselves, reassuring ourselves that we aren’t alone, and being present with our pain. Fierce self-compassion involves “acting in the world” to alleviate suffering. It tends to involve protecting, providing for, and motivating ourselves. Sometimes we need to stand tall and say no, draw boundaries, or fight injustice. Or we may need to say yes to ourselves, to do what’s needed to be happy rather than subordinating our needs to those of others. And if we’re stuck in a bad situation or habits that are harmful, it means doing something different. Not because we’re unacceptable as we are, but because we care.

If tender self-compassion is metaphorically like a parent soothing his crying child, fierce self-compassion is like Momma Bear who ferociously protects her cubs when threatened, or catches fish to feed them, or moves them to a new territory with better resources. Just as tenderness can be turned inward so that we nurture and care for ourselves, the fierce energy of Momma Bear can also be turned inward to stand up for ourselves. What’s essential is that like yin and yang, these two faces of self-compassion are balanced and integrated so that we can be whole. When both are present, it creates a caring force that can be used to transform ourselves and the world around us.

Dr. Kristin Neff talks about fierce self-compassion

Research on Self-Compassion

Thousands of research studies have shown that people who are more self-compassionate benefit in terms of their mental and physical health. Studies are typically conducted by assessing natural levels of self-compassion using self-report measures like the Self-Compassion Scale and correlating scores with other outcomes, by examining what happens to those who are put in a self-compassionate frame of mind in a laboratory setting, or else following those who learn to be more self-compassionate by taking a training course like MSC. Findings using multiple methods converge to show that self-compassion is very good for you.

Self-compassionate people are more likely to:

Self-compassionate people are less likely to:

For a research review, see:  Neff, K. D. (2023).  Self-Compassion: Theory, Method, Research, and Intervention.  Annual Review of Psychology, 74:193-217.  PDF

Myths about Self-Compassion

Myth: It will undermine my motivation

The number one block to adopting self-compassion is the fear that it will make us complacent or unproductive and that we need to be self-critical to motivate change. What should I use?

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

Self-compassion is a more effective motivator than harsh self-criticism. We try to achieve not to avoid self-judgment, but because we care about ourselves. This supportive mindset better enables us to learn from our mistakes and failures. Research shows that self-compassion engenders a learning and growth orientation that improves performance.

Myth: It means letting myself off the hook

Many people worry that self-compassion will lead them to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes or harmful actions.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

When we're self-compassionate after doing something that we regret, it provides the sense of safety needed to acknowledge what we've done. Research shows that people who are self-compassionate about their past mistakes are more like to take personal responsibility for their misdeeds and to try to repair the situation.

Myth: It's just feeling sorry for myself

Many people believe that self-compassion involves wallowing in self-pity and simply complaining about how hard they have it.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

Self-pity involves "why me?" thinking and is self-focused, while self-compassion frames the experience of imperfection in light of the shared human experience. Research shows that self-compassion reduces self-focus, increases perspective-taking, and helps us feel connected to others when we struggle.

Myth: It's self-indulgent

Some think that being kind to yourself just means taking it easy or doing what feels good in the moment.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

Self-indulgence involves giving oneself short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term harm. When we care about ourselves, we're willing to undergo discomfort for our wellbeing. Research shows that self-compassionate people are more likely to exercise, eat well, get regular medical checkups, and generally engage in health-promoting behavior.

Myth: It's the same as self-esteem

People sometimes believe that self-compassion means judging oneself positively and having high self-esteem.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

 Typically to have high self-esteem we need to feel special and above average. We have self-esteem when we succeed, but not when we fail. With self-compassion we don't need to be perfect or better than anyone else to feel good about ourselves, we just need to be a flawed human being like everyone else. Research shows that compared to self-esteem, self-compassion is less associated with comparisons with others and is less contingent on appearance, social approval, or successful performance. It also provides a more stable sense of self-worth over time.

Myth: It's selfish

Most of us have been told that we should sacrifice for others, and fear that meeting our own needs is selfish.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

Compassion isn't a zero-sum game. The more compassion that flows inward, the more resources we have available to be there for others. Research shows that self-compassion people are more giving and supportive to others in relationships. Professional and family caregivers are more able to care for others without becoming drained and burned out.

Myth: It will make me soft or weak

Some people associate being harsh with themselves as being tough and worry that self-compassion will make them vulnerable or weak.

Reveal the truth now!

Truth:

When you go into battle, what's going to make you stronger - being an ally who has your own back or an enemy who cuts you down? The supportive stance of self-compassion provides strength to face the battles of life. Research shows that self-compassionate people are better able to deal with stressful situations like natural disasters, military combat, health challenges, raising special needs children, and divorce.

The Mindful Self-Compassion Program

The Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program was developed by Christopher K. Germer, PhD, leader in the integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy, and Kristin Neff, PhD, pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion. MSC combines the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion, providing a powerful tool for emotional resilience. The program includes conceptual learning, meditations, and informal self-compassion practices designed to be used in daily life.

A number of randomized-controlled trials have shown that the MSC program greatly enhances mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. It boosts happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, decreases burnout, physical pain, and much more.

In MSC you'll learn:

Chris & Kristin Sept 2022

MSC is offered in a variety of formats and lengths, both online and in person, across the globe. There are also adaptations of the program for teens and professional caregivers. Please visit the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion to take the training online and to learn more.

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