Self-compassion is one of the latest hot topics in health and wellbeing for so many great reasons. People who practice self-compassion likely experience more happiness, have stronger personal initiative, enjoy greater overall health, are more apt to treat others compassionately, and tend to have greater awareness of their interconnectivity with all of humanity (1, 5, 12, 13, 14). But what is self-compassion and how does one cultivate it? Within this piece, I define self-compassion, review some of the available literature, and share ways to increase self-compassion through practice. In studying and working in healthcare for the past 10 years, I think that self-compassion is the much-needed revival that starts with us and has the capability to make a profound, positive impact on us all.
What is self-compassion?
Renowned self-compassion researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff, has operationalized self-compassion into three primary components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (1). Self-kindness refers to responding to perceived inadequacy or disappointment with love, understanding, patience, and acceptance, rather than criticism (1). By wrapping one’s pain in the warm embrace of self-kindness, positive feelings are generated which help to counterbalance any negativity. This helps to reframe the situation in a more optimistic and supportive way. Common humanity refers to the recognition that all people are imperfect, make mistakes, and inevitably experience failure (1). As a result of this realization, self-compassionate people do not feel isolated amid failure or struggle but view their situation within a greater perspective. They recognize that failure and struggle are merely a part of the human experience encountered by all humans at some point or another. In this way, they feel a greater sense of interconnectivity. Lastly, mindfulness is the state of being conscious or aware of a situation without becoming immersed or over-identified with it (1). Mindfulness is helpful during times of failure or struggle because it helps us to maintain a balanced sense of awareness of the negative feelings that often accompany failure and struggle without becoming overcome by them (1, 2).
Review of Literature
Self-compassion and feelings
Self-compassion is not merely a matter of positive thinking or avoiding negative feelings. Self-compassionate people acknowledge and recognize their negative feelings head-on, and they extend kindness towards themselves amid their experience of them. They adopt a perspective that these negative feelings are merely a part of the human condition that all people experience. In this way, self-compassionate people free themselves of suffering and feel far less isolated within their experience. Self-compassion allows people to encounter their difficult feelings with greater clarity, perspective, and serenity which enables negative emotional states to be effectively diffused (1, 3, 4). Even amid trials, self-compassionate people tend to experience more happiness, optimism, curiosity, and positive affect (5).
Self-compassion and personal initiative
Self-compassion is not a form of complacency – self-satisfaction that inhibits growth or improvement. The viewpoint of self-compassion equating to complacency likely arises due to self-criticism being conditioned as a primary means of motivation (5). As humans, we have been conditioned to avoid failure to prevent the experience of negative feelings resulting from the judgment we place upon ourselves and or that is placed upon us by others. Because we have been conditioned in this way, we often become discouraged and too frightened to even try (5). Thus, it comes as no surprise that self-criticism has been found to be associated with underachievement and handicapping strategies such as procrastination (6). On the contrary, self-compassion has been linked to greater personal initiative - the desire to reach one’s full potential (5). Similarly, self-compassionate people have been found to have less motivational anxiety and engage in fewer self-handicapping behaviors (7). What would you do if the fear of failure didn’t stand in your way? What if you knew that no matter the outcome of the situation that you would be met with compassion? Wouldn’t you be more likely to reach for the moon; knowing that if you miss, you’ll land among the stars?
Self-compassion and health
With self-compassion being correlated with happiness, a sense of interconnectivity to all of humanity, and greater personal initiative, it should be almost implied that people who practice self-compassion experience greater mental and emotional well-being. One of the most consistent findings in the research is that self-compassion is linked to less anxiety and depression (18). Additionally, there is increasing evidence that demonstrates that self-compassion is associated with several other key health-related outcomes. Self-compassionate people tend to be more adherent to the practice of health-promoting behaviors and self-care (8, 9, 10). I would also add that self-compassion ignites a curiosity and willingness to explore and nurture all avenues of ourselves– mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual – which leads to a broader, fuller quality of health and wellbeing. Those who are self-compassionate experience less stress, exhibit a dampened physiological response to stressors, and increased resiliency amidst stressful situations (9, 11, 18, 20, 21). It’s an accumulation of all this that may explain why self-compassionate people enjoy better overall health (12, 13, 14).
Self-compassion – extending it to others
In my experience, when we are self-compassionate with ourselves, we are more likely to extend the same compassion towards others. In turn, the compassionate interaction is usually reciprocated by the receiver and hopefully internalized to foster and nurture their own essence of self-compassion. It’s as if the compassion we extend towards ourselves creates a ripple effect positively influencing the world around us. In moments of distress, we can utilize self-compassion to help us exude kindness, connection, and presence (15). Even more so, self-compassion can also lead to greater experiences of “compassion satisfaction”—the positive feelings [experienced from one’s work] such as feeling energized, happy, and grateful for being able to make a difference in the world (16). In this way, compassion begets even more compassion, and here lies the much-needed revival that I feel has the capability to make a profound, positive impact on us all.
Building a Self-Compassion Practice
Cultivating self-compassion through practice
With all the research that correlates self-compassion with so many amazing benefits, you’re probably wondering, how do I cultivate it? Read below, as I outline a few practices that may be helpful for you.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience, we can cultivate self-compassion by intentionally practicing it (19). Loving-Kindness Meditation is a great way to cultivate self-compassion because it incorporates all three components of Neff’s research. It involves the practice of mindfulness, receiving love and kindness for ourselves (self-kindness), and then opening our hearts to extend love and kindness to others, and to all of humanity (common humanity).
To practice this form of meditation, locate a quiet space. Position your body comfortably, perhaps lying down or seated in a chair. You can close your eyes or leave them open. Perhaps you rest your hands softly in your lap or maybe experiment with compassionate touch, placing one hand on your heart and the other on your belly. Taking a few moments to stabilize the mind by focusing on the breath.
Receiving for yourself: When ready spend a few moments receiving love and kindness from yourself to yourself. If this is difficult for you, imagine a beloved family member, friend, mentor, or higher power extending the loving kindness towards you.
- Spend a few minutes resting in the warmth and radiance of this feeling; this heartfelt embrace of your entire being. You are unconditionally loved and accepted just as you are.
- If you find your mind beginning to wander, notice and observe this without judgment. Gently bring yourself back to the warmth and radiance of this loving embrace.
Opening your heart: When ready you can begin to extend the loving-kindness to others and to all of humanity.
- To others: Imagine extending loving-kindness towards a beloved family member, friend, mentor or higher power. Feel their presence with you amidst the warmth and radiance of this heartfelt embrace.
- All of humanity: Imagine extending loving-kindness towards all of humanity. Feel the interconnectivity with all humanity everywhere immersed in this experience with you.
Rest in this feeling for as long as you like.
When ready to leave this experience awaken the body slowly by deepening the breath, wiggling fingers and toes and fluttering open eyes, if you’ve chosen to close them. Returning to the space and savoring the new state you are immersed within.
Putting it into practice
Selfâ€compassion is best utilized when practiced the moment failure and struggle arise. Acknowledge the negative feelings you encounter the moment you experience them by choosing and implementing a self-compassionate response.
When these moments occur, you may choose to respond by:
- Reciting a short mantra such as, "This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself. May I give myself the compassion I need (17).”Repeat as needed.
- Meeting negative feelings with positive reactions. Acknowledging the presence of negative feelings and meeting them by reciting out-loud or in your head positive reactions to them – such as love, understanding, patience, and acceptance. Repeat until you feel the negative feelings begin to diffuse.
- Self-soothing practices including,
- Loving Kindness Meditation (see above)
- Compassionate touch: gently placing a hand atop the heart or belly, lovingly embracing yourself or someone else
- Deepening and focusing on the breath
Repeat these practices and continually implement them. Be self-compassionate amidst your journey. Every self-compassionate interaction we have strengthens this response and in time it will become second nature.
I am by no means an expert and am very much amid my own healing journey that is leading me towards greater self-compassion. I have enjoyed the opportunity to share my findings and realizations with you. I believe that self-compassion is the much-needed revival that starts with us and has the capability to make a profound, positive impact on us all.
- Neff KD. (2003) Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity. 2(2): 85–101.
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Emily Murray practices physical therapy in Wisconsin, co-directs a collective wellness group, and is passionate about researching related topics. To learn more about Emily, link to her contributor bio.