The Power of Self-Compassion

We all have a tendency to be hard on ourselves sometimes. In times of struggle, there’s often a part of us that tries to explain to us that we’re having a hard time because we aren’t good enough, something is wrong with us, we can’t do it right, or we aren’t worthy of ____ [love, success, happiness, etc.] This voice in our head – which I refer to as the “inner-critic” – operates under the guise of protecting us from pain; it believes it’s giving us a sense of control and accountability, while inspiring us to be “better.” What’s become clear to me in my personal and professional work is that the inner-critic (which is harsh and hurtful in itself) does not keep us from experiencing pain or rejection, nor does it push us to improve. It actually just keeps us stuck in a state of shame and fear. Though wallowing in that place can feel oddly satisfying for a moment, it doesn’t help – it inevitably obstructs our ability to tap into our actual strength and potential.

Consider a scenario in which you’re challenging yourself to do something that might be difficult, nerve-racking, or scary. For me, a benign but relevant example might be making a presentation in front of a large group. When I speak in public, I get very nervous and shaky, and struggle to find language that is up to my standard of perfectly articulate. Whether I’m just anticipating doing it or in the middle of presenting, I notice where my self-talk wants to go: “Emily, you suck at this. No one takes you seriously. You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re never going to be good at this. Stop trying to be something you’re not.” It could go on. When we really step back and look at this objectively, does it seem like I’m doing myself any favors? Would I ever say this to a child, friend, or loved one who was in this position? Is it realistic that after adopting this mindset, I will suddenly become perfectly calm, collected, and articulate? When we are in this state, the negative self-talk starts to build on itself and intensify. So we don’t naturally pause to step back and notice the cruel things we’re saying to ourselves and consider how harmful it might be.

This is where self-compassion comes in. It may sound counter-intuitive, like being compassionate towards ourselves might lead to laziness or self-pity. In actuality, it’s the exact same as having compassion for others (a quality most people naturally have), but turned towards yourself. And it turns out it’s profoundly helpful and potentially transformative.

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion has a few components that lead to a sense of deep empathy for our own experience , and an ability to love and care for all of the parts of ourselves, even the things we don’t “like.”

Here’s how it works:

1) Give yourself full permission to experience what you are experiencing without wanting or needing to change it, and without judging it, even if it is uncomfortable. This involves stepping back and noticing your feelings, AND accepting them. (It’s more possible than you might think.) Be gentle with yourself in this place. Many people refer to this as “mindfulness.”

2) Acknowledge that you want to feel better. You, just like anyone else, are likely wishing for safety, comfort, and peace. This is not desperation or entitlement. It is simply wishing for something we all wish for.

3) Remember that you are not alone. Struggle often comes with a sense that we are the only ones having a hard time. Suffering is, in fact, an inevitable part of the shared human experience. Recognize our common humanity and the fact that being fallible is one of the many qualities of being human that connects us all. Knowing this, our experience is more “normalized,” and we can feel accompanied and supported, even if no one else is present. (A bonus: the embracement of our common humanity makes it MUCH easier to have true empathy for others, no matter how different they are from us.)

So, in the situation described above, what might change if I noticed what was happening for me and sent it some compassion? I may take a moment to recognize that I’m anxious. I can feel my hands shaking and my heart rate picking up. I may say to myself, “Emily, it’s okay that you’re nervous. I know it’s uncomfortable and you want to feel calm. But this discomfort is nothing you can’t handle. Everyone gets nervous sometimes, and public speaking is hard for lots of people. You are doing your best.”

It may sound simple, but it is so much more helpful than the self-deprecation. These few simple sentences, which incorporate all of the elements of self-compassion, will help me love and accept myself so I can show up fully as my best self in this moment.

Myths about Self-Compassion

So, now let’s clarify what self-compassion isn’t. Here are a few misinterpretations or possible false beliefs about self-compassion, briefly explained.

1) Self-compassion is self-centered and egotistical.

Self-compassion has nothing to do with self-esteem or comparing yourself to others in any way. While the experience of self-compassion may include focusing on yourself for a moment, it is naturally invested in the wellbeing of everyone as equals. We all want to find a sense of peace and happiness.

2) Self-compassion means I am just making excuses for myself. It is enabling and will make me lazy.

While being harsh with ourselves may feel like accountability, it more often stops us from taking action out of fear. Self-compassion is an agent for ownership and action. When we experience true empathy for ourselves, when we believe we deserve comfort, we have a greater capacity to actually help ourselves.

3) Self-compassion means I am feeling sorry for myself.

Negative self-talk like I described earlier sounds a lot more like self-pity than compassion does. Self-pity is likely to reinforce negative beliefs about yourself, while compassion supports self-understanding and resiliency, giving you the tools to actually courageously face your struggle head on.

4) Self-compassion is selfish or narcissistic.

Noticing that you are struggling and needing comfort does not mean you believe your needs are more important than others’. You deserve love and care just as much as anyone else, and it is okay to count on yourself for this sometimes. Recognizing the shared experience of suffering inherently promotes empathy for others, and self-compassion gives you more resources for giving support to others.

The Benefits of Self-Compassion

Empathy is not a brand new concept. Many of us are readily available to understand and show concern and care for others, and know why that can be helpful. But somewhere along the way, we were taught not to have compassion for ourselves – to “suck it up,” “look at the bright side,” or to “put others first.” This means we are likely to miss the imperative step of treating ourselves with loving-kindness when we need it most.

One of the only major agreements among therapists from all orientations and theoretical backgrounds is the effectiveness of a therapist having genuine empathy, understanding, and positive regard for their client. Clients experience tremendous benefits from the therapist’s ability to provide these three simple things. Can you imagine the possibilities – the well of internal resources we would have if we could give this to ourselves, at any time, when we need it?

Self-compassion can help us in so many ways, including the following:

  • Unlocking us from negative loops in our self-talk, allowing us to like ourselves, open up to new things, and move forward

  • Promoting resiliency and tolerance for discomfort during difficult times, increasing our ability to regulate our emotions

  • Healing and shifting our meaning of our painful memories (sometimes called “memory reconsolidation”)

  • Improving our ability to take in positive experience, notice more possibilities, be more present and attentive, and accomplish tasks

  • Increasing our capacity for empathy, patience, and love for other beings

Just like any other change in our lives, integrating self-compassion takes practice. Our brains are made up of neuropathways that have been developed over a lifetime of repetitive experience. To learn something new, we always have to start from scratch. It may not come easily, but eventually it will stick, just like any other skill that is practiced. It can help to come up with a reminder for yourself (maybe a daily alarm on your phone to check in with yourself, a post-it note on your mirror, etc.) to come back to these concepts when you are noticing your inner-critic is running the show. Practice taking a pause, notice your experience, accept it with loving-kindness, and send it some compassion. Self-compassion is a way of talking to yourself that would resemble how you might comfort a loved one, friend, or child. Sometimes it can be powerful to imagine speaking to your own inner child or a memory of yourself as a child.

Self-compassion is the brave act of facing our pain, rather than avoiding it. When we shift our relationship to suffering, we can make meaning of it, learn to tolerate it, and find healthy and sustainable resources to soothe it. We provide ourselves with the comfort we need to keep going, and we learn to trust ourselves.

*For more on this topic, I suggest reading works from Self-Compassion experts who inspired some of the content of this post: Kristin Neff and Tim Desmond.