Let's do a very quick experiment. Grab a pen and some paper. Go on, this will be good fun!
Firstly, quick as you can, without too much conscious thought, list all of your most favourite things about your bestest friend.
Easy? Got a massive list of amazing qualities? Excellent!
Now, with that pen and paper, list your most favourite things about yourself. Quickly. Off you go.
How was that? A little bit harder? Was your list a little bit more difficult to cultivate than that of your besties? A bit slower to get off the ground? Maybe your BFF’s qualities look a little longer than your own when written down on paper by you?
It’s interesting isn’t it? In general, we are way nicer to our friends than we are to our self. We humans can be much, much better at being able to love the people around us than we are at loving ourselves. To improve our relationship with our self it might be worthwhile to consider the practice of ‘self-compassion’.
At its core self-compassion is about treating ourselves kindly. Extending towards our self the same kindness and sympathy that we might extend to a good friend.
Over the past decade self-compassion has gained popularity as a related and complementary construct to mindfulness, and research on self-compassion is growing at an exponential rate. Dr Kristen Neff a pioneer in the self-compassion field has explained:
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?
In essence, compassion for our self is similar to the compassion we feel for our loved ones. When we feel compassion for others, we feel kindness toward them, empathy, and a desire to help reduce their suffering. It’s the same when we are compassionate toward our self. Self-compassion creates a caring space within us that is free of judgment—a place that sees our hurt and failures and softens to allow those experiences with kindness and caring.
To explain it a bit more, it might help to outline what self-compassion isn’t.
Self-Compassion is not self-pity.
When we humans feel self-pity, we can become totally immersed in our own problems and forget that others have similar problems. We can ignore interconnections with others, and instead feel that we are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.
Self-Compassion is not self-indulgence.
Self-compassion is also very different from self-indulgence. This took me a while to understand and some other (struggling) perfectionists may also have difficulty with this one. I was initially reluctant to be self-compassionate because I was afraid that without my inner self-criticism I would let myself get away with just about anything and everything would fall to shit. This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion. Being compassionate to oneself means that we want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising). We are often very hard on ourselves when we notice something we want to change because we think we can shame themselves into action – the self-flagellation approach. However, this approach often backfires if we can’t face difficult truths about our self because we are so afraid of hating our self if we do. Thus, weaknesses may remain unacknowledged in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censure. In contrast, the care intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation.
Self-Compassion is not self-esteem.
This is a really important one. Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, they are different in many ways. Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While there is little doubt that low self-esteem is problematic and often leads to depression and lack of motivation, trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic. In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special. Accordingly, it is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. Unfortunately this can mean that some attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. We might get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done anything that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves. The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. Finally, our self-esteem is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances.
In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden. Moreover, self-compassion isn’t dependent on external circumstances, it’s always available – especially when you fall flat on your face!
But the two do go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened. Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.
The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion does in fact appear to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, but with less discernible downsides.
So, how do we focus on cultivating a compassionate and kind relationship with our self? Well according to Dr Neff, self-compassion entails three components and in order to be truly self-compassionate we combine each of the three essential elements.
Self-kindness is being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critically and judgmental. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognise that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.
The best way to think about being kind to yourself is to think about a friend. Go ahead. Do it now. Visualise your best friend. Again. Now imagine they come to you and say they are hurting because they were passed over for that promotion at work that they’ve wanted for so long. Would you say to them, “Well, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough. And you’re too weak. You should have spoken up about wanting a promotion a long time ago.” What? You wouldn’t say that to a friend? Would you say it to yourself? It’s more likely that you would hug your friend and say, “Oh no! That’s terrible. I know how long you’ve been hoping to get that promotion. Come on, let’s go get some coffee and talk about it?” You can be kind to yourself in this way, too. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering. Just as you would hug your friend, soothe yourself as well. Put your hands over your heart or locate the spot in your body where your hurt is hiding and gently place both hands there. Speak kindly to yourself. Call yourself by an endearing name. “Oh, honey. I’m hurting because I wanted that promotion so badly. This is a really hard place to be in right now.”
2. Common humanity
This is my favourite bit. Self-compassion requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.
Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. But we all suffer. All the humans suffer. Turns out the very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. And yes, that’s shit, but with self-compassion we recognise that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
Many times when we criticise or judge our self, we can feel very, very isolated. It can seem as if we’re the only person in the entire universe with this problem or flaw. And yet, we are all imperfect. We all suffer. And so we are all connected by our shared humanity.
One of the wonderful outcomes of self-compassion is our enhanced sense of belonging, the feeling that we are all in this together.
The next time you are looking in the mirror and not liking what you see, remember that you are an integral part of a flawed, wonderful, wounded, miraculous human tribe.
3. Be mindful
Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.
Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.
How will you know that you are suffering if you are repressing your pain, rationalizing it, or busy with problem-solving?
We can allow awareness of our pain to enter in. Being mindful is about noticing what is happening in the moment and having no judgment about it. Notice our hurt and just be with it, compassionately and with kindness. And note that trying to make pain go away with self-compassion is just another way to repress pain and hurt. Self-compassion is about being with your suffering in a kind, loving way, not about making suffering disappear.
Taken together, the research suggests that self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive. – Kristen Neff
It does take work to break the self-criticising habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day self-compassion is just asking us to be friendlier to our self. Asking us to relax, allow things to be and love our self with a little more kindness.
For more good stuff on self-compassion, check out the website of one of the lovely ladies I completed my psych training with here. Dr Brooke is a self-compassion guru and she's got an awesome #bemyownbestie Insta campaign going to keep your practice on track!