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What Exactly is This Thing Called 'Self-Compassion'?



In our recent Blog about self-compassion we explored some of the benefits of being kind to yourself that are highlighted by current research. If this raised your curiosity, you might be asking...


“What exactly is self-compassion?”


The word compassion, derived from it’s Latin roots ‘com’ and ‘pati,’ literally means to ‘suffer with’ - we see the suffering of another and are moved to alleviate their pain. Feelings of compassion release the ‘bonding hormone’ oxytocin and stimulate the regions of the brain related to empathy. From a physiological standpoint, it is evident that compassion is an evolutionary feature that enhances our sense of community and connection. Self-compassion, then, is when we turn that kindness inward to ourselves in our own struggles and difficulties. These struggles and the subsequent suffering can be caused by external circumstances or by our own mistakes and shortcomings. It can be a result of major life events such as the death of a loved one or a divorce, but it can also come from smaller setbacks and events like performing poorly on a test or daily disappointments. Whatever the trigger, self-compassion - similar to compassion - allows us to connect and care for ourselves in a way that soothes and reduces suffering from painful experiences and emotions.


Kristen Neff, a researcher in the field of self-compassion, identified three distinct components of self-compassion:


First, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or overidentifying with it.


Second, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental.


Third, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. (1)


Despite research showing the benefits and positive outcomes of self-compassion, there exist a number of misgivings about self-compassion. Self compassion is not:


Self-pity: Self compassion is not a ‘woe is me’ attitude. Rather, by allowing ourselves to accept, experience and acknowledge difficult feelings we are better able to process and release them. In fact, research demonstrates that self- compassionate people are more likely to engage in perspective taking and awareness of others. (4)


Weakness: Instead of being a sign of weakness, self compassion is a strength that makes us more resilient. Self-compassionate people are better able to deal with difficult situations. For example, in a study of veterans diagnosed with PTSD, those with higher levels of self-compassion reported suffering less from symptoms of PTSD. (2)


Selfish: By including ourselves in our circle of compassion, our sense of separation from others is lessened and we are better able to help others. Think of the old adage ‘put on your own air mask before helping the person in the seat next to you’.


Self-indulgent: Many of us think that if we aren’t self-critical and relentlessly pushing ourselves that we will become lazy (who wouldn’t want to watch TV all day?!). In reality, compassion supports long-term health, not short term pleasure (think of a parent’s compassionate care for their child). In addition, self-compassion offers the self a supportive environment conducive to change and minimizing fear of failure. Research shows that people who practice self-compassion engage in and sustain healthier behaviors like exercise, eating well and drinking less alcohol. (5)


Making excuses: Self compassion is not avoiding responsibility for our shortcomings. Conversely, non-judgment and acceptance provides the safety needed to admit mistakes. In a recent study researchers found that when participants were instructed to be self-compassionate when thinking about a past mistake, humiliation or failure, they were more likely to take greater personal responsibility for their actions rather than blaming things on other people or circumstances. (3)


With the preponderance of evidence suggesting self-compassion is actually a positive catalyst, why are we so inclined to be harsh on ourselves? Recall the last time you made a mistake or experienced struggle, how did you respond to yourself in the midst of this painful experience? If your answer is with anything but kindness, there is hope! Thankfully, self-compassion is a skill that can be learned. In an upcoming Blog we will explore how to practice this essential skill.


In the meanwhile, if we can help you in any way on your journey to well-being, please reach out to us at Wildflower Center for Counseling at (843) 936-2566.





1. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition


2. Dahm, K., Meyer, E.C., Neff, K., Kimbrel, N.A., Gulliver, S.B., & Morissette, S.B. (2015). Mindfulness, self-compassion, posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and functional disability in U.S. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28, 460-464. DOI: 10.1002/jts.22045


3. 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.


4. Neff, K., Pommier, E. (2012). The Relationship between Self-compassion and Other-focused Concern among College Undergraduates, Community Adults, and Practicing Meditators. Self and Identity, 10.


5. Kelly, A. C., Zuroff, D. C., Foa, C. L., & Gilbert, P. (2009). Who benefits from training in self-compassionate self-regulation? A study of smoking reduction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 727-755.

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