Compassion That Is Directed to Yourself

Young black man looks into a fragment of a mirror

Self compassion is a concept I stumbled upon while listening to a podcast. The topic of the episode I listened to was “self esteem”. It was a deep dive into why it is good to have self esteem, but also why it can be harmful if we emphasize it too much. What caught my attention was when the host said that self compassion has all the upsides of self esteem without its downsides. After being enlightened on the topic, I want to encourage you to give the concept of self compassion a try. I also want to give you some food for thought as to why it’s beneficial to have the same amount of compassion towards ourselves as towards others, and why self compassion is something that we all desperately need right now.

What’s interesting to know about self compassion

Let’s start with the basics. What is self compassion? To explain it briefly, self compassion is acceptance, love and kindness that is directed towards oneself. It also doesn’t differentiate much from having compassion with others. 

To make it more tangible, here is an example: If a friend of yours has a bad day at work, how do you react? Most likely you listen to them with patience, comfort them, and encourage them. You acknowledge their pain, treat them with kindness, and understand that a bad day at work can happen to anyone. If you yourself have a bad day at work, do you treat yourself alike?

We just need to include ourselves in the circle of our compassion. Doing that is the art of self-compassion.

Christopher Germer

According to researcher Kristine Neff, self compassion is built on three main pillars:

  1. Self kindness: to treat yourself with kindness like you would to your friend in the example above. Be encouraging, gentle, understanding, and patient to yourself. Take good care of the language that you use when you speak to yourself. 
  1. Common humanity: Ask yourself – how am I the same as others rather than how am I different to others. All of us are imperfect and that’s what makes us human. 
  1. Mindfulness: Be in the present moment and allow yourself to experience all your feelings. Even when the emotion you feel is considered a “negative” one. For example, if you are suffering over something, acknowledge it. This is the first step toward self compassion.   

After reading about the definition of self compassion, what do you think – how self-compassionate are you? Researcher Kristine Neff has developed a short questionnaire for you to find out.

What are the benefits of self compassion?

Self compassion is an indicator for strong mental health. This means that it is associated with well-being and higher levels of happiness. Researchers also found that it has benefits such as lowering levels of anxiety and symptoms of depression. One out of many reasons for that is the high level of intrinsic self-worth that comes hand in hand with self compassion.  It is a very stable and therefore reliable factor in contrast to, for example, self esteem, that can vary a lot (e.g. if you achieved something it can go up or when you failed at something it can go down).

Furthermore, research shows that self compassion has a positive impact on how someone perceives stress. It can help to eliminate negative physical stress symptoms and it is also a valuable resource and a component of resilience. So when you practice self-compassionate behavior – for which you will find some tips below – you are less likely to feel overwhelmed in difficult situations. A study among students, for example, showed that self compassion helped them to overcome negative feedback and improved their overall academic engagement. 

Image by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.   

Self compassion can motivate us. This may be an idea we are unfamiliar with, as many of us were raised to believe that being strict with oneself would lead to success. Very often, however, it is the opposite case. Different from self criticism, self compassion can lead to a release of oxytocin. This makes us feel good and therefore gets us in a comfortable starting position to achieve our goals. Exaggerated self criticism on the other hand threatens our self concept and leads to stress. It activates our threat and defense system and cortisol and adrenaline will be released. 
Self compassion also comes along with healthier behavior. Researchers found that it is easier for people with strong self compassion to quit smoking or to work out more regularly and keep a healthier diet. 

And as important as the personal benefits mentioned above are, to quote Kristine Neff in her TEDx talk:

The more we keep our hearts open to ourselves, the more we have available to give to others.

Kristine Neff

So self compassion is not only beneficial for oneself, but has also a positive impact for the people around us. For example, people who are self compassionate also tend to be more empathetic. They have a higher level of altruism as well as forgiveness toward others. 

How to bring theory into practice

If you want to practice self compassion, here are some hands-on tips for you:

  • Change your self-talk by using “releasing statements” – when a judgemental thought regarding yourself comes up, try to rephrase it e.g. from “I’m such a bad person, for forgetting to call back my friend” to “It’s ok that I forgot to call back, if it happens once in a while it is (im)perfectly human and doesn’t make me a bad person.” 
  • Comfort yourself with kind words and gestures: Calling yourself kind names such as “sweetie” or “darling” and using gestures like giving yourself a hug can activate our caregiving system and release oxytocin.
  • Yoga, breath work, etc. : Develop a set of mindfulness practices that you can recall and apply in difficult situations.
  • Give yourself the benefit of the doubt: Instead of predicting yourself to show a certain negative behavior in a given situation, give your future self the chance to act differently.

Be to yourself the friend that you are to others. More importantly – try different practices and tips and find out what works best for you personally.

If you want to learn more about self compassion, especially in contrast to self esteem, watch “self compassion pioneer” Kristine Neff’s TEDx talk “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion” at TEDxCentennialParkWomen.

This article was reviewed by Sarah Guvi and proofread by Ipek Yilmaz. Cover image by Jurien Huggins on Unsplash.  

Julia Zmölnig

Julia loves to travel, interesting stories and to spend time with family & friends. She holds a bachelor's degree in media management and a master's degree in communication management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.