Self-Compassion – An Overview

In order to fully understand self-compassion, we must first look at compassion. Compassion is about seeing the suffering of others, feeling a deep concern, and harnessing the motivation to do something to alleviate that suffering.

Compassion always involves action of some kind.

Empathy is feeling with someone, or perspective taking.

Empathy and compassion are intertwined, but they are different. Empathy is often the gateway to compassion, and compassion is what motivates and moves us to take action to make a difference in other people’s lives.

For Reflection

  • What are your thoughts about compassion?
  • How does compassion show up in your life?
  • What suffering are you most motivated to work towards alleviating?

Many of us find it much easier to offer compassion to others than to extend it to ourselves. Yet there is much research that indicates those who practice self-compassion have a greater sense of well-being and resiliency, and stronger mental health.

What is Self-Compassion?

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day.

A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”

~ Chris Germer, PhD (Author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion)

Self-compassion is about extending compassion to oneself in instances of suffering, perceived inadequacy, or failure. As humans we have the tendency to stuff or ignore our pain and discomfort. We consciously or unconsciously think that stuffing our pain seems like a better option than dealing with it. However, we also know that unprocessed pain festers and grows. It can begin to impact our perceptions and the way we interact with the world. In essence ignoring the pain has the opposite effect of what we want. Alternatively when we treat ourselves with self-compassion, we create space to normalize and process the pain. We are better able to learn from the pain and move past it.

Let’s look at this in terms of compassion for someone else. If I see the suffering of another, and in my busyness and haste I walk by without offering any kind of compassionate response. I have allowed the suffering to continue.

Likewise, if we do not pay attention to our own suffering, then we will not be able to offer ourselves self-compassion and we will continue to be in pain. Over time, a lack of self-compassion will increase our chances of experiencing depression, stress, compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress.

Self-compassion means that we extend to ourselves as much kindness as we would offer our best friend, our children when they are suffering. It’s about noticing when you are having a difficult time. Instead of being harsh and critical with yourself, telling yourself to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” acknowledge the pain of the situation and offer yourself kindness.

When we practice self-compassion we say,

“This hurts. I’m hurting right now.” And then ask, “What can I do to support myself right now?”

If your best friend came to you upset and emotional about a problem they were facing, how would you respond to them?

Likely you would offer them a hug and some kind words. Now consider how you treat yourself when you are struggling. Are you apt to offer kind words, and some self-comfort? Or would you be quick to let your inner critic say nasty, mean things?

When we build a practice of self-compassion, we become aware when we are beating ourselves up, judging and criticizing ourselves. We learn to pay attention to it, and then very consciously shift from judgement to kindness. It’s important to note that when we criticize and berate ourselves it activates the stress response in our bodies. We feel a similar effect emotionally as we would if someone else berates us.

Imagine that your favourite little person, under the age of 10, comes to you crying. They tell you that they failed a test today, and other children in the class teased them.

For Reflection

  • How would you respond to your favourite little person?
  • What if you failed something at school or work, and then got raked over the coals by a professor or supervisor? How would you treat yourself?
  • Would you treat yourself differently than you would treat the little person in your life? Why?
  • If it is hard to offer kindness to yourself, do you think it’s possible to shift that response?

The practice of self-compassion encourages us to process difficult feelings. We all benefit when we receive tenderness and a gentle approach. We know that we need this from others, but the person we need tenderness from the most is ourselves.

Kristin Neff PhD is a leading researcher on the topic of self-compassion and author of the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. In her research, Dr. Neff describes self-compassion as having three components – Self-Kindness, Common Humanity & Mindfulness. Let’s dig into them.

Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement

If being hard on yourself was going to work, it would have worked by now.

Many of us have developed a habit of speaking unkindly to ourselves when we struggle or make mistakes. Sometimes we even have a sneaky – often unspoken – belief that being hard on ourselves will motivate us to change or improve. The opposite is actually true.

As we mentioned above, when we speak to ourselves unkindly, with judgmental and criticizing self-talk, we trigger our sympathetic nervous system. That means we are causing our own bodies to react by releasing stress hormones into our bodies. Rather than motivate us to change, this response actually causes us to stay stuck in our pain.

The truth about that habit of speaking unkindly – sometimes brutally so – to ourselves has to do with our “Inner Critic.” We have all been on the receiving end of negative, critical comments. These critical comments are remembered and held by our subconscious, even if our conscious mind forgets. These negative comments can show up in the form of our “Inner Critic,” which is that tape that plays critical comments in your head when you mess up.

Anytime we mess up or something bad happens creates an opportunity for our Inner Critic to rage out on us. It’s like an awful recording that we can’t seem to delete.

For Reflection

  • Do you have an Inner Critic?
  • What kinds of messages does your Inner Critic give you?
  • Where do you think some of these messages have come from?
  • Have you discovered any effective ways to quiet your Inner Critic?

In order to shift power away from our Inner Critic or judge, we need to understand that the Inner Critic is all about self-protection.

We also need to understand that neuroplasticity is a real thing and that we have the power to change our brains! This is such good news.

Now, about self-protection: Have you ever noticed that on any given day, several positive things can happen for you, but if you experience one negative situation, or you hear a negative comment directed at you, that’s the thing that sticks? The negative comment or experience sticks like Velcro. Neuroscientist Rick Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Our brains tend to remember or store criticisms and negative comments as an act of self-protection.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Dr. Hanson talks about “the negativity bias.”

He further defines negativity bias in the article Take in the Good, this way:

Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots. That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.

Many scientists agree with this theory of negativity bias. Essentially, it was important for people to remember when something bad happened, because that memory protected them in the future! Though we now don’t have the same type of predators, our brains still work in similar ways.

Though our risk for getting attacked by a wild animal is much less today than it was in our hunter/gatherer days, we can be bombarded by things that trigger our stress response on a daily basis (these can be things like a negative comment on social media, a negative interaction with a professor, feeling inadequate, etc.).

When we approach this with self-compassion, we learn to approach these feelings with self- kindness instead of judgement.

Practicing self-kindness means we:

  • Notice the self-judgement
  • Choose to stop it
  • Instead offer self-kindness and understanding

Dr. Kristin Neff talks about self-kindness this way:

Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.

When we practice self-kindness, we choose to self-soothe. Instead of just listening to the negative tapes that play in our head, we can choose to change the tone of our self-talk. Instead of speaking like your Inner critic, as cheesy as it might sound, you can choose to speak in the tone of your Inner Coach.

For Reflection

  • How would your Inner Coach speak to you?
  • Can you think of some positive, encouraging things others have said to you in the past?
  • How can you remind yourself to speak with the tone of an Inner Coach, instead of the Critic?

You can also choose to self-soothe through something as simple as putting a hand on your arm, or having a cup of tea or choosing something that feels soothing to you.

What are some things you can do that calm you down when you feel like you are judging yourself?

Consider some self-soothing practices that stimulate your senses. Make a list below:

  • Sight (ex. Spending time in nature, noticing things):
  • Sound (ex. Listening to music that calms you):
  • Smell (ex. Using an essential oil such as orange, or lavender): Touch (ex. Wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket):
  • Taste (ex. Enjoying some tea or chocolate):
  • Kinesthetic: (Ex. Go for a bike ride, or do some stretching):

Common Humanity vs. Isolation

When we struggle, we can feel very much alone, and we can tend to isolate and pull away from others because we feel like we are the only one who struggles in this way. This feeling of isolation can be suffocating and disconnecting.

When you are in the thick of things, have you ever found yourself thinking things like, “why me?” or “I am the only person who has ever experienced this.”?

It’s easy to feel like everyone else has it all together…everyone but me.

The truth is that we are not alone.

Everyone struggles. When we are struggling in isolation, it can be a HUGE comfort to remind ourselves that we aren’t alone and that others have struggled in the same way we have.

Creating connection while normalizing these big feelings is what peer support is all about. The connection. “Same. I get it. Me too.” are powerful words. There is relief in knowing that we aren’t alone when we are in our deepest struggle.

Part of being human is that every one of us wears a badge that says, “Hello, I am wonderfully imperfect, and I will make mistakes and that’s OK.” Being human means that struggle and suffering come with the territory. When we are mindfully aware that we are not alone, the pain stings just a little less.

When we are more accepting and loving towards ourselves when we fail or suffer, we create an opportunity for connection.

We will all mess up. Even as you start this job as a peer supporter, you will make mistakes. It comes with the territory of starting something new.

You aren’t perfect. No one else is perfect either.

You will make mistakes. And so will everyone else in the world. You can learn from your mistakes; and treating yourself with self-compassion means you are actually more likely to take personal responsibility for your life.

You are valuable no matter what!

When we can accept that messing up is part of being human, we are more likely to learn from the experience, integrate the learning into our lives, and move past it. When we hold onto our pain, struggle, and shame when we make a mistake, we get stuck. We are more likely to ruminate, become defensive, and get lost in a shame cycle. When we know that everyone makes mistakes, and that we are the same as everyone else, we don’t need to defend ourselves when we mess up. Then we are more likely to take a humble approach.

There is so much freedom in owning our fallibility, learning from our mistakes and moving on, rather than ruminating or getting defensive. The research says that people who practice self-compassion are better equipped to take personal responsibility. We can speculate that this is because we are able to let go of the drive for perfection that can cause us to be defensive and to avoid things that are uncomfortable.

So next time you are in a struggle or are feeling badly about making a mistake, pay attention to how you feel. Know that you aren’t alone. Offer yourself some kindness.

For Reflection

  • Have you felt alone when you have struggled?
  • How does it feel when someone says, “me too”? If you were holding onto shame, can you see that it would help you let go of it?
  • Do you beat yourself up when you make a mistake?
  • What can you do to be kinder to yourself?
  • What do you think would be or feel different if you were to practice greater self-compassion?

Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification

Mindfulness can have many meanings, and some people might feel resistance to the word. When we are talking about mindfulness in the context of self-compassion, we are talking about courageous presence. We are talking about choosing to pay attention to what is happening around us, in our thoughts and in our bodies. When we pay attention to our emotions, when we are more aware and mindful of them, then we are able to work with them.

The two unhelpful extremes to note when dealing with our emotions are (1) to suppress our feelings and (2) to allow them to become very amplified. Neither is helpful for our well-being.

A big part of self-compassion is allowing ourselves to feel our pain or emotion, sitting with it and learning from it before we move on from it.

Sitting with a strong emotion can be challenging since we are hardwired to be reactive towards things that trigger us. When we learn to sit with the discomfort that comes from big feelings, and we choose to feel the pain, we create a space of mindfulness that helps us avoid both stuffing our feelings and lashing out in reactivity at others.

With this approach we look at emotions as weather patterns. They come and go. We don’t have to judge them or hold onto them. We aren’t defined by them.  We HAVE them, but we know we are always MORE than our present emotions. Ruminating on or stuffing our feelings doesn’t serve us either – it just keeps us stuck.

When we move quickly into problem solving mode without allowing time to process what is happening, we are essentially stuffing our pain. When we stuff our pain, we are not creating space to process and learn from our experiences. That space to process before we jump in and try to fix things  is very important to our mental health.

Next time you feel struggle, pain, disappointment or sadness try sitting with it. Pay attention to where you are feeling it in your body before you react in a problem-solving way.

For Reflection

  • Do you tend to let yourself feel big feelings? If not, why?
  • Do you see yourself as a stuffer of emotions, or an avoider?
  • What can you do to support yourself to sit with and process your big feelings?



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book