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Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading experts on self compassion, offers this definition:
“Self compassion is the ability to notice our own suffering and to be moved by it, making us want to actively do something to alleviate our own suffering.”
We know the voice all too well, the critical subtitle to our every action as we go about our day:
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” “You’re failing, big time,” or “Pull yourself together.”
Sometimes, there are moments when we become acutely aware of how we speak to ourselves. But other times, the practice of self compassion goes right out the window.
It took me painting my university dorm room to realize that “You’re not doing this properly” was playing on repeat in the back of my mind, like a broken record.
Other times, the critical commentary might not be as obvious; all we know is that we are rushing from task to task with a general sense of unease and anxiety.
Let’s say you could still get everything done that you need to. Wouldn’t it be nice to speak to yourself with the same respect, honesty, and kindness as a close friend or coach might when they want to support your growth?
This not only brings us closer to ourselves but also to others. Just like other human beings, we:
- make mistakes
- we go through hard times,
- and experience difficult emotions that lead us to act in ways we later wish we hadn’t
Welcome to the (human) club!
What is self compassion?
Self compassion has three components:
1. Self kindness instead of self judgment
Approaching our experience with non-judgmental curiosity and emotional warmth. A willingness to take care of ourselves.
2. Common humanity instead of isolation
Embracing imperfection and making sense of our experience as a shared human experience. Recognizing and understanding others’ suffering.
3. Mindfulness instead of over-identification
Turning our attention towards our thoughts and emotions as they are (whether a positive or negative emotion). Not holding on to them nor dismissing them. This is especially crucial for negative thoughts.
Common misconceptions about self compassion
There are some persistent concerns and misconceptions when it comes to self compassion. Here are five of the most common myths:
Myth 1: Self compassion is self pity
“If I open this can of worms, I will wallow in my feelings forever and never get anything done.”
A study by Filip Raes at the University of Leuven found that self compassionate people tend to brood and ruminate less. They also report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Holding our experience with self compassion, we actively care for our emotional and physical well-being. We learn to respond to challenges with more agility and emotional resilience.
Myth 2: Self compassion is self excuse
“I will justify my own harmful behaviors and not take responsibility.”
Self compassionate people tend to be more motivated to apologize when their behavior has done harm. They are also more committed to not repeating the behavior again.
Kristin Neff also names self compassion as the key in the fight for racial justice. This is because self compassion strengthens personal accountability.
Myth 3: Self compassion is self serving
“Caring for myself over others is selfish.”
Research studies have shown that self compassionate people have better romantic relationships.
Kristin Neff and Natasha Beretvas found that self compassionate people are said to be:
- More caring
- More affectionate and considerate according to their partners
- Have more acceptance of their own and their partner’s imperfections
- More likely to compromise when there is conflict
Myth 4: Self compassion equals self esteem
“I don’t need it. I am already confident in myself and my abilities.”
High self esteem is often tied to success or failure. When things go well, we feel on top of the world. When things take a turn for the worse, our self esteem suffers.
With too much self confidence, we might also overestimate ourselves and make reckless decisions.
Self compassion allows us to be more emotionally resilient in times of success and adversity. It helps us assess situations more objectively and supports us in making sound decisions.
Myth 5: Self compassion is de-motivating
“If I get too comfortable with my shortcomings now, I will stop taking action towards my goals.”
Through her studies of grit, Angela Duckworth found that the key to success is working hard at a sustainable pace. It also requires the removal of expectations of immediate payoff.
A self compassionate person has a more realistic assessment of where they are now and what it takes to reach their goals. They also take into account their own limitations and challenges.
This way, they can pace themselves for long-term sustained performance and success.
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Self compassion in action
Our daily life gives us ample opportunities for self compassion practice, and it will likely look different for all of us. What can self compassion look like in practice? Let’s take a look at three examples.
Knowing what matters most
Kumar and his whole family had tested positive for COVID-19. After a long recovery period, Kumar was still suffering from side effects related to the infection.
Four months later, he and his family were invited to a large wedding celebration with 100 guests. Not wanting to disappoint the couple and their families, Kumar had brooded multiple days over the dilemma.
Practicing self compassion in coaching, Kumar realized that he is scared for his and his family’s health. The infection had shaken him more than he had allowed himself to acknowledge. The thought of going through it again was terrifying, as painful experiences often are.
At the same time, he felt concerned that his decision not to attend might disrupt family relationships. He felt that the couple getting married, who hadn’t experienced COVID-19, might not understand the severity of the infection.
After identifying the mixed emotions and being able to name them, the decision not to attend arose naturally.
At peace with his decision to prioritize his family’s health, Kumar could clearly communicate his decision not to attend. This also affirmed the relationship that existed between them.
We all want connection
Joan was recently promoted to a managerial role, a goal she had had for a long time.
A few months in, she noticed that she lacked the drive she usually experienced in her work. Looking into the cause for her lack of motivation, she had to admit that she was feeling lonely in her new role.
Yes, she had more responsibility, but apart from brief conversations and meetings, she was working on her own for most of the day.
She missed the excitement and teamwork with her previous colleagues.
When at work, they would spend hours every day problem-solving and moving projects forward. She noticed that connection was the missing piece for her. So, she intentionally started scheduling lunch meetings with old colleagues and peers.
To her surprise, many previous colleagues were eager to reconnect and had missed interacting with her, too. By simply caring for herself enough to move into action, she also contributed to other people’s well-being.
Related to my inner critic
Tim was successful in his leadership role at a large multinational company and had continuously climbed the ranks.
Still, when it came to public speaking, he would freeze, scared about being seen as incompetent and unsuitable for the role. Tim started getting curious about the tone and message of his inner critic in coaching. He realized that the inner critic actually carried his father’s voice.
He was so deeply influenced by the messages he grew up around many decades earlier. This softened his self-assessment for what he perceived as his failure to perform. Instead, Tim got in touch with the positive intention the inner critic had for him.
The critical voice, he realized, could be a motivating force instead of the one calling the shots. It could be the motor, but it’s he who’s holding the steering wheel.
The benefits of practicing self compassion
“The research is actually getting boring,” Chris Germer affirms, quoting psychologist Mark Leary, “because just about every measure of psychological well-being we have seems to be associated with self compassion.”
According to findings in recent years, self compassion promotes:
Mental and emotional well-being
Self-critical inner dialogues that reinforce a sense of inadequacy over long periods of time activate our body’s stress responses. Self compassion, in turn, activates the care system, which gives us a sense of safety and security.
This reduces the harmful effects of stress and also helps us self-regulate when we experience shame. Overall, self compassion was found to be the most powerful source of resilience.
Self compassion is good not only for our mental health.
It appears to be related to better immune function and other physiological processes.
Self compassionate people tend to care for themselves more actively. This is often through regular exercise and healthy eating habits.
A growth mindset
Self compassionate people tend to not only see who they are more realistically. They also see their potential for growth and will invest the effort it takes to improve.
A study by Serena Chen found that self compassion leads to self-improvement by first enhancing the desire to do better.
It also reinforces the belief that it is possible to improve and that putting in the hard work will help to achieve goals.
Psychological safety and innovation in the workplace
Self compassionate leaders who are comfortable with admitting limitations and vulnerabilities tend to be more compassionate with the limitations and vulnerability of their team.
This sets a positive example and creates psychological safety. This is an important hallmark for innovation and team cohesion.
Authenticity, purpose, and meaning
Treating ourselves with kindness and understanding can help us more proactively align our life with our values.
Having a clear perspective of who we are and what matters most to us allows us to seek out the professional roles that fit best.
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How to practice self compassion
The good news is, self compassion is something we can practice and strengthen. Here are some self compassion exercises to get started:
You can access the emotional and mental benefits of self compassion at any given moment. You don't have to set dedicated time aside for it.
Let’s say you are in an exhausting meeting or in the middle of a difficult conversation. The simple gesture of intentionally placing one hand on top of the other forearm can activate the care system.
Notice the warmth and gentleness of your own hand. Maybe apply a little pressure, just like you would touch the shoulder of a family member or friend who is suffering. If the situation allows, you can also keep your right hand, or both hands, on your heart.
Clinical psychologist Chris Germer recommends accompanying physical touch with a silent, self compassionate statement.
This might be: “Phew, this is tough” or “This is a moment of struggle. We all struggle.”
Enhance your emotional agility
One way of enhancing your self compassion is to learn to label your emotional states. You can then notice what they are telling you about what really matters to you.
Journaling can be a good practice to develop a nuanced vocabulary of your inner experience.
The more we become comfortable in recognizing feelings and needs in us, the more we can notice them in others around us.
For example, we can begin to notice them in our managers, team members, partners, and family members.
Getting in touch with this shared humanity is a crucial part of self compassion.
In Buddhist meditation, there is a practice called “Just like me.” It is meant to awaken our compassion for others:
“Just like me, this person only wants to know they’re doing a good job, that they matter.”
For the sake of practicing self compassion, we might turn this around and say, “Just like them, I only want to know that I’m doing a good job, that I matter.”
Our inner critic has often been around for a very long time. So, mindfulness practice can be an important self compassion exercise. This is also known as mindfulness meditation or mindfulness training.
Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach developed a self compassion practice called RAIN.
The acronym consists of four steps:
- Recognize what is going on
- Allow the experience to be there, just as it is
- Investigate with interest and care
- Nurture with mindful self compassion
Before practicing on your own, it can be helpful to use a guided meditation recording to practice along with.
Externalize your inner critic
Our inner critic has its best intentions for us – maybe it wants us to be safe, to contribute, to succeed, to belong.
Granted, the good intention is heavily veiled under the demeaning tone. When you think back to a moment where you were especially hard on yourself, can you conjure up the message you would hear? What is its tone?
If you imagined your inner critic as a cartoon character or person, what would they look like? What’s their name? Bringing it out into the open can help us regain our sense of agency and reframe their message as a motivator, but not as the full truth about ourselves.
The first step towards self compassion
Despite our best intentions, cultivating self compassion can feel like an impossible task.
The language of inadequacy that our inner critic speaks is mirrored back to us at work and at home – do more, be more, be different, stand out from the crowd. Naturally, we will feel like there’s no time to take a break, no space for being kind to ourselves.
This might be especially true if we had to make tremendous efforts to get to where we are today, including our:
- Life stories
- Social contexts
- Experiences of systemic exclusion
The first step in cultivating self compassion is to acknowledge how hard it is to be self compassionate in our complex world.
When we are in touch with that, compassion for ourselves and our fellow beings can arise and expand naturally. This allows us to live fuller lives with more happiness and deal with painful thoughts with greater ease.
If you need help developing your self compassion, consider working with a BetterUp coach to improve yourself and, in turn, improve your life.
BetterUp Fellow Coach