Supervised by: Jennifer Buffalo, LPC-S, LMFT
You might have heard the term “self-compassion” from people in the mental health and wellness world – but what does it really mean, and how can you work on it? Self-compassion is what it sounds like — a practice of extending compassion toward ourselves, just as we would towards others. It involves mindfulness, a recognition of our common humanity, and kindness.
The three parts of self-compassion
First, to have compassion, we must first recognize that someone is suffering or in pain. Turning this recognition inwards in a helpful way requires mindfulness. We must be able to identify how we are feeling, without judgment, and without exaggerating or minimizing our suffering.
2. Common humanity
Second, we must recognize the common humanity in our experiences of suffering. Common humanity involves recognizing the universal experience of suffering, of being imperfect, of struggling – of being human!Without common humanity, we are likely to view our struggles as unique to us and a reflection of our worth, which is often very isolating.
Third, we must extend kindness to ourselves. Self-kindness involves checking in with oneself about what you need in a moment of pain, and offering that support, forgiveness, and understanding to every part of oneself. Self-kindness allows us to see our worth as unconditional – no matter what mistake we’ve made or what thoughts or feelings we are having in a given moment, we are still deserving of love and care.
Let’s look at an example of a self-compassionate response: I find myself facing a mistake I made at work, and notice a feeling of disappointment. Using the three elements of self-compassion, I’d say to myself: “I’m feeling some disappointment right now. This is really hard. (Mindfulness) Other people make mistakes in their jobs, too. I’m not alone in this. (Common humanity) May I give myself the gentleness and forgiveness that I need right now (Self-kindness)”
Benefits of Self-Compassion
Research has shown correlations between self-compassion and decreased mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression, and stronger coping skills and interpersonal relationships. Self-compassion has also been linked to more connectedness with others, life satisfaction, and emotional intelligence (Neff, 2012). The practice can help us feel more confident, capable, and accepted in ourselves. Self-compassion also helps to build our self-image and self-worth in ways that are more sustainable and consistent than measures like self-esteem. While self-esteem is often based on our achievements, mistakes, successes, and failures, self-compassion helps us to be with and care for ourselves through all the difficult times.
The science behind self-compassion
When we become distressed, the emotional part of our brain releases agitated chemicals. When we give compassion to ourselves, soothing neurochemicals are sent to the emotional part of our brain, which calms the neurobiological fire set by our distress. In contrast, when we criticize or judge ourselves for our distress, additional distressed/agitated neurochemicals are sent to the emotional brain, intensifying the neurobiological fire. Let’s look at another example: Sam becomes sad when they think of their former partner, with whom they’ve just broken up. If Sam then becomes angry at themselves for feeling this emotion, and perhaps criticizes themself for not being “strong” or moving on faster, their subcortical (emotional) brain will be sent even more agitated neurochemicals, and add to the pain. Conversely, if Sam responds to this sadness with self-compassion (kindness, mindfulness, and a recognition of the universality of this experience), their subcortical (emotional) brain will be soothed, and the pain will subside much quicker.
Did something you read resonate with you? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free, 30-minute consultation with a licensed therapist. While you’re here, check out our self-compassion support group and resources!
Kristen Neff. https://self-compassion.org/
Julianne Taylor Shore. “Self-Compassion and the Four Brain States of Compassion.” Academy of Therapy Wisdom.