Self-Compassion? The What, Why And How of It


According to Kristin Neff, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, and one of the one of the world’s leading experts in the field,

Self-compassion… involves being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness.

Self-compassion also involves offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.

What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion may be described as follows:

Self-compassion is having compassion for yourself. It is ability to feel your own emotional experiences without criticism. Self-compassion is non-judgmental self-acceptance.

In self compassion, you meet and treat yourself as your good friend, with attention, acceptance, warmth, and kindness.

Here’s Kristin Neff explaining the core features of self-compassion.:

Kristin Neff: The Three Components of Self-Compassion

What’s The Origin Story of Compassion?

Do you know what the word ‘passion’ meant a few centuries back? It meant, from its Latin root patior, to suffer.

That sense of the word has a theological connection too. In 2004, Mel Gibson released his Aramaic language movie The Passion of The Christ. The ‘Passion’ in its title referred to the suffering of Jesus Christ in his final hours.

By that note, compassion means to suffer together. So, when you show compassion to another, you decide to feel their pain in the way they feel it – without judging them.

Compassion is an important human quality. Because we suffer in our own different ways, it is our compassion that makes us feel similar. And that helps us bond as society, as common humanity with shared experiences.

Self-compassion is when you meet and treat yourself as your good friend, with attention, acceptance, warmth, and kindness. Click To Tweet

Without compassion, perhaps, we would have lived on as separate individuals.

Why Is Self-Compassion Important?

Research has shown when people practice self-compassion exercises, they are happier.

Self-compassionate people feel more resilient, optimistic, and curious. They also find it easier to set personal responsibilities and learning goals.

Neff, Rude and Kirkpatrick found self-compassion has positive associations with:

  • Happiness
  • Optimism
  • Positive affect
  • Wisdom
  • Personal initiative
  • Curiosity and exploration
  • Agreeableness
  • Extroversion
  • Conscientiousness

As it turns out, self-compassion is one of the most vital predictors of our psychological health and life satisfaction.

How Self-Compassion Improves Life?

If you are to make self-compassion into a daily practice, at least five areas in your life will be affected in a positive way:

1. Relationships

Research shows if you are kind and understanding with yourself, you are more likely to be same with others. The warm glow of your self-compassion has a spontaneous spill-over effect on to the other relationships in your life. People seek out self-compassionate people as friends. Those who can accept themselves without judgment, they know, will nurture them for their friendships, not wealth or looks.

2. Mental Peace

Self-compassionate people are more mindful of their actions. They don’t react easily. Instead, they give much thought to the possible consequences of their actions, and respond with mindfulness. This makes them more at peace with themselves as well as with those in their surroundings. Self-compassionate people tend to be highly conscientious – that is, they behave responsibly towards others and thereby have lesser chance of inviting their ire by disturbing their calm.

3. Motivation

Self-compassionate people show greater personal initiative at changing things for a more fulfilling life. They are curious to know if what’s happening to them has any learning potential. When they face setbacks, they first tell themselves it’s a human experience, and hence, could have happened with anyone. Afterwards, they get curious to take away a lesson from the unfortunate event, so that they can avoid it or handle it better next time. Thus, self-compassionate people are more intrinsically motivated and less fearful of failures.

4. Happiness

Self-compassionate people are happier. Before you ask why, let’s understand that happiness has two states – one that’s in the moment-to-moment, and the other that’s over a long period of time (as a lifetime). Self-compassion creates an upsurge in both these states of happiness. Why? Because first, these guys are less likely to criticize themselves continuously for their past actions. And second, they are more likely to forgive themselves for their mistakes, and move on towards better lives. Also, they are more likely to be optimistic – and that gives them a better shot at being happier.

5. Decision-making

If you think of it, every decision you ever made was perhaps the best decision you could have made at that moment. With time, as you and your circumstances changed, many of those decisions seem to have been mistakes. So you regret them now. But when you see those times through the lens of self-compassion, you do not see them in total remorse. Instead, you forgive yourself for those past choices. All along, the present ‘you’ also accepts and vows you won’t take the same stands in future. Self-compassion, thus, makes you a wiser decision-maker.

How To Have More Self-Compassion?

You can have more self-compassion by including a few habits into your daily life. These are self-compassion exercises you can do to increase your self-compassion.

Researchers have tested these exercises on a large chunk number of participants, and found them to raise self-compassion levels.

For example, a 2012 study of a compassion meditation program, conducted over eight weeks for a total of just 13 hours, found self-compassion levels of the participants increased by 30% on average.

Here are 4 exercises to be more compassionate towards self:

1. Supportive Touch

When you give yourself a supportive touch, as hugging yourself, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, your heart slows down, your stress hormone cortisol levels fall, and you calm down. Physical touch also releases oxytocin – the “love hormone”. This makes you feel safe and cared for.

2. Friend Treatment

Get a sheet of paper and write down the things you would say to and do for a close friend when they are in distress. Then, write down the things you said and did to yourself when you made your last blunder. And notice how different you were in each case. Next, write down how things would be different if you were to give yourself the same treatment you’d give your dear friend.

3. Self-compassion Break

Neff defines self-compassion as a composite of three features – mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.

  • Think of a situation in your life that’s causing you distress. Tell yourself, “Buddy, this is a moment of suffering. It’s hurting you.” This part is mindfulness.
  • Then, tell yourself, “Suffering is part of life. You’re not alone. Everybody goes through this sometimes.” This part is common humanity.
  • Finally, give yourself a hug, and say, “May I be kind to myself. May I begin to accept myself. May I be strong.” This part is self-kindness.
self compassion components

4. Writing A Letter

First, write about an issue that’s bothering you – including all the emotions that arise within you. Second, think of an imaginary friend who knows about your strengths and weaknesses, and cares about you unconditionally. And write a letter from this friend to you, focusing on his acceptance of you with kindness. After writing the letter, keep it away for a little while. Then come back and read it – feeling the compassion.

Final Words

We close it with these words by Melanie Koulouris:

There is no sense in punishing your future for the mistakes of your past. Forgive yourself, grow from it, and then let it go.

[This post was originally published at till, written by the same author.]

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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.

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