Compassion (noun). “Sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, with the urge to help; deep sympathy.”
While we’re familiar with compassion and directing it toward others, offering it to ourselves can be an unfamiliar or even challenging concept. We might be quick to comfort a friend with reassurance: “Yes, you made a mistake, but you did the best you could at the time.” But we often find it difficult to grant ourselves the same understanding, perspective and kindness.
Research, however, reveals that self-compassion can be beneficial to your mental health. Practicing self-compassion can enhance your life, helping you achieve greater emotional resilience and happiness. It helps you care for yourself. And it can be learned.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas who studies self-compassion, describes it as the “same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” Just as you’d notice a friend’s suffering, when you practice self-compassion, you acknowledge your own. Just as you might be moved to offer a friend comfort, you respond generously to your own need for sympathy. Dr. Neff lists three elements of self-compassion:
Kindness, rather than judgment, toward yourself. It’s easy to beat up on yourself when you feel you’ve failed or fallen short; in fact, it’s often our default response. But giving yourself a break and recognizing that life doesn’t always cooperate can give you a chance at better emotional outcomes and more peace.
Recognizing your (humble) place in humanity. Realizing that you are human, and like all humans, that you are imperfect, can free you from feeling so alone in your situation or troubles. When you practice self-compassion, you remember that you have plenty of company navigating life’s ups and downs—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Mindfulness—being aware of, but not caught up in, your emotions. Mindfulness is a powerful tool to help you recognize your emotions but not over-identify with them. As Dr. Neff states, “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.”
The Benefits of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion can seem like a lot of effort, but there are definite benefits. Research has shown that practicing self-compassion can improve mental health by helping to regulate emotions. Emotional regulation can reduce symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety and PTSD. “Regulation,” however, does not mean “avoidance.” Avoiding emotions can magnify them and make them seem insurmountable. The mindful awareness of self-compassion helps manage emotions as you face them directly, supporting yourself with kindness.
“Self-compassion yields a number of benefits, including lower levels of anxiety and depression.”Harvard Medical School, 2013
Practicing self-compassion has a number of other life-enhancing benefits, such as:
- Better performance. While many subscribe to the view that being hard on yourself is “good” for you, the opposite is true. Beating yourself up about failing that test will not help you pass it on subsequent tries. But recognizing that everyone has bad days could help.
- Increased motivation. In one study, students who practiced self-compassion reported greater motivation to address their weaknesses and to avoid repeating their mistakes.
- Better body image and sense of self-worth. When you realize that you are just as “perfect” as everyone else, you become less concerned with flaws and more able to recognize positive things about yourself.
- Greater resilience. Self-compassion can help you through hard times. In a 2012 study, adults who had higher levels of self-compassion as they went through a divorce were affected less negatively by this life-changing event.
- Greater happiness. In a 2007 study of undergraduate students, self-compassion had beneficial effect on students’ “happiness, optimism, positivity, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness.”
As you develop your practice of self-compassion, it’s important to remember what self-compassion is NOT—it is not self-pity, self-esteem or self-indulgence, any of which can lead to a negative state of mind. Self-compassion is about being kind to yourself; it is a practice that can be learned with deceptively simple exercises:
Be encouraging. You wouldn’t walk up to a friend and tell them what a terrible haircut they just got. If they were upset about it, you’d point out something nice about the cut and remind them that hair grows!
Be mindful. Observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Accept your less desirable actions along with your good deeds. Don’t whitewash or avoid; just notice. Try writing down a description of an upsetting incident that 1) includes how you felt about it, and 2) avoids assigning blame—to yourself or others.
Talk to yourself like you would speak to a good friend. Offer support; if a friend criticized himself, you might counteract it with a statement like “You’re not incompetent; you actually have a lot of strengths in this area.” “Talking back” to your negative self can feel strange at first, but it helps create a new, more positive reality for yourself. Words are powerful.
It may seem challenging to be kind to yourself when you’re in the middle of a crisis or feeling depressed or anxious. But these are actually good times to practice self-compassion. If you need help navigating life’s ups and downs, or addressing underlying mental health issues, counselors at Best Day are standing by to listen to your needs and help you determine the best possible course of treatment for a healthier, happier life.
Video talk: The Three Components of Self-Compassion
YouTube / TEDx Talk: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion
Self-compassion exercises from researcher Kristin Neff
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