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Self Compassion

By Kristin Neff, PhD

Associate Professor
Human Development and Culture
Educational Psychology Department
University of Texas at Austin

Self-compassionate people are less depressed,
anxious, stressed, and perfectionistic

Think of all the generous, kind people you know who constantly give compassion and care to others, yet continually beat themselves up by saying, "You're so stupid! I can't believe you screwed up like that!" Would you talk this way to a friend, or even to a stranger for that matter? Of course you wouldn't (or at least I hope not!) Most of us are quite practiced at being kind toward the important people in our lives. We let them know it's okay to be human when they fail. We reassure them of our respect and support when they're feeling bad about themselves. We comfort them when they're going through hard times. But how many of us offer that same level of compassion to ourselves?

For some reason, our culture tells us that this is the way we should be - women especially. But when caregivers continually give to others without being kind, caring, and supportive toward themselves, they'll eventually burn out. Whether it's a professional caregiver dealing with challenging clients or work frustrations, or a parent with a special needs child, we need to have self-compassion in order to be at our best.

For the past decade or so I've been conducting research on self-compassion and have found that self-compassion is strongly related to mental health (visit for more information). Self-compassionate people are less depressed, anxious, stressed, and perfectionistic, while being happier, more resilient, socially connected, optimistic, and satisfied with their lives. Self-compassion is also associated with healthy behaviors. It has been shown to help people quit smoking, stay on their diets, exercise, and seek medical care when needed. Moreover, self-compassion has been shown to protect caregivers from burnout and compassion fatigue and to increase satisfaction with one's caregiving role.

It makes sense. When our inner voice continually criticizes and berates us, we end up feeling worthless, incompetent and insecure, and often end up in negative cycles of self-sabotage and self-harm. However, when our inner voice plays the role of a supportive and compassionate friend - even in times of challenge or failure - we feel safe, accepted, and able to do our best.

But what is self-compassion exactly? Drawing on the writings of various Buddhist scholars, 1-3 I have defined self-compassion as having three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

We need to have self-compassion in order to be at our best

Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself, rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. Instead of taking a cold "stiff-upper-lip" approach in times of suffering, self-kindness offers us soothing and comfort. Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail, and make mistakes. It connects one's own flawed condition to the shared human condition, so that one can take greater perspective towards one's personal shortcomings and difficulties. Mindfulness involves being aware of one's feelings in a clear and balanced manner, so that one neither ignores nor obsesses about disliked aspects of oneself or one's life. The three together combine to create a self-compassionate frame of mind; a compassion that can be extended towards the self when suffering occurs through no fault of one's own, when the external circumstances of life are simply too painful or difficult to bear, or when suffering stems from one's own mistakes, failures, or personal inadequacies.

People often confuse self-compassion with self-pity. In fact, while self-pity is an egocentric emotion where people become carried away with their own personal soap opera, self-compassion is a connected emotion where people simply acknowledge that the human experience entails suffering.

An even bigger barrier to self-compassion is the belief that it will lead to self-indulgence - letting oneself get away with anything. In fact, because self-compassion involves the desire to alleviate suffering, it actually encourages growth and motivation. Just as a compassionate mother doesn't let her son skip school and eat ice-cream all day but instead requires that he does his homework, eat his spinach, and so on, self-compassion encourages us to do what is needed to help us be healthy and happy. Self-criticism, on the other hand, is a lousy motivator. It makes us depressed (not exactly a get-up-and-go mind state) and makes us lose faith in ourselves. It also inhibits our ability to acknowledge needed areas of change because we're afraid of the self-judgment that will follow.

Self-compassion is crucial for caregivers, not only because it helps us forgive ourselves for our inevitable mistakes, but also because it allows us to acknowledge and comfort ourselves amidst the challenges of our caregiving role. As a mother of a child with autism, I can tell you what a lifesaver self-compassion was for me (you can learn about my journey with autism in the book and film The Horse Boy at ). Because of the intense sensory issues experienced by children with autism, they are often prone to violent tantrums. When my son screamed and screamed because his nervous system was being overloaded and I couldn't figure out the cause, I would soothe myself with kindness. When my son lost it in the grocery store and strangers gave me nasty looks because they thought I wasn't disciplining my child properly, I'd give myself the compassion I wasn't receiving from others. In short, self-compassion helped me cope and that put me in the balanced emotional mind state needed to deal skillfully with whatever new challenges arose.

Self compassion will lead to greater happiness and peace of mind
The healing power of self-compassion isn't just an airy-fairy idea. In fact, research shows that self-compassion taps into a different physiological system than self-criticism. When we harshly criticize ourselves, we activate our fight or flight response - being both the attacker and the attacked - and our body becomes flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. Self-compassion, in contrast, taps into the mammalian caregiving system that allows us to both give and receive care (all mammals have this system because their young are born in such an immature state). Self-compassion, especially when accompanied by soothing touch, releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin and reduces cortisol levels, thereby helping us feel calm and secure.

If you're a caregiver, try giving yourself compassion the next time you make a mistake or feel challenged beyond your ability to cope. Not only will it help to get through difficult situations, it will lead to greater happiness and peace of mind.

My website, , has exercises and guided meditations, links to research articles, and a way to test self-compassion levels. You can also learn about and develop greater self-compassion by reading my recently released book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.

1 Brach, T. (2003) Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantam.
2 Salzberg, S. (1997). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambala.
3 Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart. New York: Bantam Books.

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