The Power of Self-Compassion

One of the downfalls of living in a society which stresses the ethic of independence and individual achievement is that if we don’t reach our ideal goals, we feel we the need to beat ourselves up.  We believe this self-criticism will make us a stronger, better, and perhaps a more resilient person……right?


So, what really happens when we enter down this path of thinking?

We fall into a vicious cycle of painful mental self-abuse.

If you think that you are making yourself a better person by beating yourself up when you make mistakes, think again. You are actually causing increased feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. And, there’s a good possibility you’re taking your frustrations out on the people closest to you.

What can you do to help break the cycle of self-criticism and self-judgement?

Start practicing self-compassion.

As a coach, I’ve worked with many clients who recognized their need to adopt a practice of self-compassion. Yet, being self-compassionate is sometimes misunderstood and seen as being self-indulgent, self-centered or even narcissistic.

It isn’t.

Studies have shown that instituting a practice of self-compassion leads to increased emotional well-being, the ability to cope with difficulties in our lives, an increase in intrinsic motivation, improved relationships, and a happier life.

Why wouldn’t anyone want more of this?!

So….what is self-compassion?

According to Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, to be self-compassionate requires three core components:

  • To be kind to yourselfTo be gentle and understanding rather than harshly critical and judgmental.
  • To recognize our common humanity. To remember that we are connected with others as we experience life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.
  • Mindfulness. To hold our experience in a balanced awareness rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. Mindfulness is the ability to know what’s going on in our head without getting carried away by it.

Being self-compassionate means that you talk to and treat yourself the same way you would a good friend. Wow. Can you imagine how much more fulfilled, productive, and different life might feel with just this one shift in our thinking?

A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”– Christopher K. Germer

Self-compassion is the same as the compassion that you give to others – it’s just directed at you. It is the seeing and recognition of suffering that evokes feelings of kindness for us, the sufferer, which in turn produces a natural desire to help.

Why is it more difficult to cut ourselves slack? 

Because when we fail, our concept of self is threatened. When we feel threatened our body pumps out cortisol (the stress hormone) and we slip into fight, flight, or freeze mode.  We react as if our lives are in danger and we become both the attacker and the attacked. This instinct was useful when we needed to be concerned about being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, but not when we slip up and make a mistake in the twenty-first century.

Why is it easier to be compassionate for others?

When someone else fails, our prehistoric default fight, flight, freeze doesn’t get triggered because we aren’t the one threatened.  It’s not our failure – not our self-concept that is in jeopardy, because of this we can have compassion for others.

What can you do to start a practice of self-compassion?

  • Break the cycle. Learn to label your strong emotions when you feel them.  This jolts you  outside of your current state and gives real perspective for what’s actually going on.
  • Track and sense where you feel emotions in your body. This process allows you know when you’ve been triggered.
  • Learn how to self soothe when experiencing a difficult emotion. (E.g. deep breathing, rubbing your arms, giving yourself a hug, etc.)
  • Ask yourself the following questions to help you to listen deeply to what you need most in this heightened moment:

1) What am I observing?

2) What am I feeling?

3) What am I needing right now?

4) Do I have a request of myself or of someone else?

These steps are not intended to get rid of the emotion you’re feeling, they are to help see things objectively and to understand the information your emotions are giving you.

Remember that when faced with your human imperfection, you can either respond with kindness and care or with criticism and judgement.” – Kristin Neff

I meet Kristin Neff in person in San Francisco a few years ago. I believe her work is on the cusp of a cultural revolution. Yes, this is a strong statement, yet I believe the power of self-compassion can be learned by anyone, and her research has proven that self-compassion helps to build a more focused and fulfilled life and, who among us doesn’t want this?

If you want to learn more about how to start a practice of self-compassion I suggest you pick up Kristin Neff’s book or visit her website.

Article written by: Christine Noffz