What Is Self-Compassion?

What Is Self-Compassion?

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Margaret Fiero

What is self-compassion? Read below to find out more.

Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman, because it’s conditional.” – Albert Ellis

It’s that time of year again. We made it through the overindulgence of the holidays, and now it’s time to buckle down and make some resolutions. Cut carbs, hit the gym, set a budget, read War and Peace. How about resolving to be more compassionate to ourselves? I know it sounds crazy, but just bear with me.  Kristin Neff, a University of Texas professor who studies self-compassion, points out in this video the life-changing benefits of self-compassion, while differentiating it from the oft-touted self-esteem.

An Epidemic of Narcissism

Neff actually began as a self-esteem researcher who over time realized that the revered trait had many pitfalls avoided by self-compassion. For those of us who grew up inundated with the importance of self-esteem, it can be strange to hear that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. According to Neff, though, self-esteem is detrimental because it is based on a judgment of ourselves and contingent on external factors, such as achievement, success and physical attractiveness. Another problem with self-esteem: it’s reliant on us being “special” or “above average.” In our culture, “average” is an insult, despite the fact that it’s impossible for all of us to be “above average.” This mentality encourages us to put others down to build up ourselves. To be “special,” we must separate ourselves from others. Neff points to an “epidemic of narcissism” in college-age adults that may be connected to the self-esteem movement. Self-compassion addresses the phenomenon of failure, an integral part of being human, while self-esteem has no answer for it.

Three Components of Self-Compassion

What is self-compassion, exactly? Neff describes it generally as “relating to ourselves kindly,” and “embracing ourselves – flaws and all.” Specifically, she breaks it down to three components:

  • Self-kindness: Treating ourselves as we would a friend (not a frenemy) – with warmth and care. Think about what you would say to a friend on their worst day, when they are really suffering. Now think of how you talk to yourself on your worst day. Unless you’re already a self-compassion champ, there’s probably a disconnect between the two. Whereas we are tender and encouraging to our friend, we tend to use the drill sergeant tone with ourselves: “Snap out of it!”; “Get a grip!” We would never dream of taking that approach with our hurting friend, unless we’re looking to drop them. Providing ourselves with the kindness we so easily offer ourselves is a basic building block to self-compassion.
  • Common humanity: Self-esteem asks that we separate ourselves from others to differentiate ourselves from “the herd.” Self-compassion says that our suffering connects us. Just like failure, suffering is part of the human experience. Yet, again, it is on our worst days when we feel most disconnected from others. Working with those who struggle with severe depression, I see how crippling isolation is, and conversely, how learning that we are not alone in our struggles comforts us. Where self-esteem asks: “How am I different from others?”; self-compassion asks “How am I the same as others?” Remembering we are not alone – even though we may feel so very alone – in our darkest moments is an integral part of being compassionate toward ourselves.
  • Mindfulness- In difficult times, we often over-identify with our inner self-critic to the point that we don’t even realize that we’re suffering, and therefore can’t give ourselves the self-compassion we need. Rather than jumping to berate ourselves, these are the times we need to take a step back and for a moment realize what’s happening to us. What are we thinking? What are we feeling? Is what we’re telling ourselves helping, or hurting us? Mindfulness gives us the space to allow self-compassion to move in and soothe our wounded self.

Self-Criticism: Both Predator and Prey

If self-criticism is so detrimental, why do we do it? One reason is that we feel we need it to motivate ourselves, despite the fact that research shows it undermines motivation. Neff links it to our biology and evolution. This harkens back to when we were focused on basic survival: finding food and shelter and avoiding predators. When a threat surfaces, the ancient, reptilian brain releases adrenaline and cortisol to begin the fight-or-flight process. In modern times, the threats we face are less to our physical selves and more to our self-concept. Despite the dichotomy, the same physical response occurs.  Self-criticism provides the threat, and the unfortunate situation of making us both the attacker and the attacked. If we face constant stress, this can lead to high levels of cortisol, which is harmful to the body. We protect ourselves from that harm by shutting down, which may lead to depression. And how motivated are you when you’re depressed?

One other reason we resort to self-criticism is that it can yield a short-term benefit, but the long-term results are poor. We may “get a grip” temporarily, but eventually we will want to avoid the consequences of our self-criticism and just give up. There is also the misconception that self-compassion is self-indulgence and selfishness. The truth is to the contrary. It is only when we can be open and accepting to our own struggles that we can be open-hearted toward others. The more we give to ourselves, the more we have to give to others.

Our Inborn Caregiving System to the Rescue

While our biology can work against us, it can also offer us an answer. As mammals, we have a care-giving system to look to for support. Because mammals are born immature, a system is in place to ensure the infant stays near its mother for protection. This system is why we respond to touch, warmth and soft vocalizations. When we show compassion toward ourselves, we mimic the results of that system, releasing the “feel-good hormones” of oxytocin and opiates. It’s not surprising to learn that when we feel safe and comforted, we are at our most optimal state

How do we show ourselves compassion? We do exactly what we do to others when they are struggling. We ask ourselves, what can I do to help? How can I support you? It may feel odd, but consider what research has linked self-compassion to:

-Mental well-being

-Decreased depression

-Less anxiety

-Less stress

-Less perfectionism


-Life satisfaction

-Increased motivation and responsibility

-Healthier lifestyle choices

-Better interpersonal relationships

Self-Compassion: Better than Self-Esteem

Self-compassion also offers the benefits of self-esteem sans pitfalls. As opposed to self-esteem, Self-compassion provides strong mental health without narcissism, social comparison, and ego defensiveness. Self-compassion provides a more stable sense of self-worth as well, because it’s always there, even – especially – when we fail. When self-esteem ducks out, self-compassion swoops in and restores an unconditional sense of value for the sole reason that we are humans, and worthy of love.

So when it comes to resolutions, I’m not saying to throw out the gym membership card, the budget, or War and Peace, but try to work in some self-compassion as well. If we feel the need to “better” ourselves, what better way to start than showing more kindness and compassion to ourselves? If you need a place to start, check out Neff’s website: self-compassion.org


TEDx Talks.  (2013, February 6).  The space between self-esteem and self-compassion: Kristin Neff at TEDxCentennialParkWomen.  [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4#t=1120

If you feel that you need any help learning compassion for yourself, others, or your partner, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment. Additionally, you can find out more information on our adult counseling page. If you would like additional information for personal growth, you can also read Saving Some Time for Self-Care and Key Ingredients for Mindful Living.