Self compassion comes up a lot in the work I do with clients. Some people have a really strong critical inner voice that comes out and berates them when they make the slightest mistake. Others deal with a lot of guilt and shame. There are also those that are struggling with really challenging symptoms rooted in trauma and other mental health issues, and feel frustrated with themselves for how these symptoms impact their lives. Over and over again I end up coming back to the importance of self compassion.
What is Self Compassion?
Kristen Neff describes self compassion as stopping to recognize our own suffering; it involves extending kindness to one’s self in instances of pain or failure rather than harsh judgement and self criticism. Self compassion allows us to see our experiences as a part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating (Neff, 2005) A quote from her book, Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself that illustrates the concept of self compassion and how it can help us:
By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, as difficult as it is, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity and isolation.
Roadblocks to Self Compassion
Obviously becoming more compassionate towards yourself is easier said than done. Self compassion is a part of many traditions, including Buddhism, however we live in a society that tends not to encourage self compassion. Western society in particular encourages a stiff upper lip and puts a lot of emphasis on independence and achievement. When those are the values we centre in our lives, it is easy to feel like we are failing much of the time. There is always more we can achieve, and acknowledging our failings and emotional needs can make us feel weak.
Another roadblock to self compassion can involve what we experienced growing up. How we were treated in childhood builds the foundation of how we feel about ourselves. If, for example, we had a critical parent, their voice can become internalized. We can also be influenced by our parents’ or caregivers’ relationship to self compassion. If our parents model a positive sense of self worth, and are able to accept that they make mistakes and that that is a part of life, it might be easier for us to have compassion for ourselves. However if we see our parents never being happy with what they accomplish, always being hard on themselves, and feeling angry and frustrated by the mistakes they make, we might find ourselves repeating that pattern.
Benefits of Self Compassion
While it can seem like a lot to overcome these roadblocks, I would argue it is very much worth it. Self-compassion enables people to suffer less while also helping them to thrive. Research has found that self compassion is strongly associated with mental health, and results in lower levels of self-criticism, perfectionism, depression, and anxiety (Neff, 2003). It also improves our ability to take responsibility for our actions. This may be a surprise for some people who think of self compassion as a form of self indulgence, something that let’s us off the hook. However research suggests that when individuals take time to reflect on mistakes and moral transgressions in a kind and understanding way, they are more likely to take responsibility for their mistakes, less likely to blame outside events and people, and more motivated to repair any harm that the mistake caused (Breines and Chen, 2012 ; Leary et al. 2007). By viewing ourselves in a compassionate way, it allows us to not identify so much with our mistakes. If we don’t see our mistakes as a sign we are flawed or bad in some way, we are less likely to want to avoid or block out the mistakes, and are more likely to be able to reflect on them, learn and find ways to move forward.
Hopefully this blog post has helped you see that self compassion can bring some benefits to your life! A future blog post will have exercises to help develop self-compassion, however if you are eager to get started you can check out Kristen Neffs website: self-compassion.org
Breines, J. G. & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. DOI: 10.1177/0146167212445599
Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887-904.
Neff, K. (2003) Self Compassion and Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Towards Oneself, Self and Identity, 2, 85-102
Neff, K. (2004) Self Compassion and Psychological Well-Being, Constructivism in the Human Sciences 9(2) 27-37
Neff, K. (2011) Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, William Marrow
Clare Pentelow, MSW, RSW, RP is a psychotherapist at Kitchener Therapy. She has over 10 years of experience in the mental health field.