What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is a concept brought into mainstream research by Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor, the University of Texas at Austin, about a decade ago. It involves a non-judgmental understanding of one’s own suffering and failure without being overly self-critical and to be kind to oneself. Self-compassion involves three main elements: self-kindness (being kind to oneself rather than self-critical), common humanity (seeing oneself within a larger society), and mindfulness (being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings in the present moment and not allowing them to overwhelm). Self-compassion is also an important aspect of emotional intelligence by monitoring one’s emotions to guide thinking and behaviour to help cope with stress, and it enhances compassion for others by recognizing connectedness with others.
Self-compassion involves mindful attention to oneself nonjudgmentally with loving kindness. Being kind to oneself means being aware of oneself, one’s strengths and weaknesses, with acceptance and understanding. Kindness towards oneself allows problems and human potential to be seen accurately with appreciation. To accept our mistakes means we are not self-critical and self-judging. By using sympathetic rather than judgmental language to express empathy towards ourselves, we can actively comfort ourselves as we would others. Unfortunately, self-kindness is not something actively taught or even accepted as a culturally valued response. Our society stresses individualism, and when we fail, we tend to blame ourselves with self-criticism and shame. We have not been taught self-kindness or self-forgiveness.
A common humanity suggests that we are all human, and we are all fallible. We need to look at ourselves and appreciate who we are and what we have. A core element of humanity is that it is imperfect. This means that defeat and suffering are part of the human condition. In choosing an authentic self, we need courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable – in feeling that we are not good enough and feel acceptance of our inadequacies without shame or guilt. Self-compassion means that we comfort ourselves when we make mistakes; wrong choices are part of human nature and are not to be criticized. Through a growth in self-compassion, one is able to handle negative situations and feel more in control of one’s suffering. To look at one’s suffering nonjudgmentally and accept one’s own faults means to acknowledge that everyone suffers, and everyone is human.
Compassion means to “suffer with” which implies our connected relationships with others. Self-compassion suggests an interconnection with other human beings as part of common humanity. Connectedness and belonging is a fundamental human need. We have a need for connectedness; humans are social beings. We would not be who we are without our relationships with others. Self-compassion involves accepting oneself as fallible, which encourages acceptance of others, with their flaws and shortcomings, as members of common humanity.
Mindfulness is the “awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). It is to experience the way things are and not to judge them. A conscious awareness exists in the unfolding of experiencing the here and now. Mindfulness is an awareness of awareness, but it also entails an acceptance of the way things are. This does not mean we become apathetic towards the way things are and not try to improve our life’s circumstances. Rather, mindfulness allows us to see the way things are, to take steps to improve the situation, and to recognize and accept when changes are not possible. However, it is sometimes difficult to change what goes on inside our heads: our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. These are the automatic thoughts we cannot control, but they can control us. When we are aware of our thoughts as only thoughts, they can lose their control of our mind. A conscious awareness becomes a calm foundation to experience life. By reducing sensory input and sitting quietly, one can begin to pay attention to inner feelings, experience these feelings, and bring them into conscious awareness. It means to awaken the heart within us to develop genuine kindness towards ourselves.
Self-Compassion is not Self-Esteem
Self-compassion is different than self-esteem. Self-esteem involves feeling good about ourselves, but it has been shown to lead to negative self-worth and competition. Self-esteem is dependent on how well we do in the world, which brings about competition to do better than others. Competition also leads to comparing ourselves to others. If we feel others are better than us, we feel threatened. If we are not better than others, we feel a negative self-worth, or we lower our expectations of ourselves. Social comparison also affects our relationships; we tend to distance ourselves from people we deem as being better than us. On the other hand, self-compassion is associated with positive self-affect, which is not associated with trying to make oneself better than others. Instead of self-esteem, we should be striving for self-compassion and self-acceptance for who we are.
If our self-worth and belonging is “grounded in simply being human, we can’t be rejected or cast out by others. Our humanity can never be taken away from us, no matter how far we fall” (Kristin Neff).