There’s a growing body of research demonstrating that relating to ourselves in a kind, friendly manner is essential for emotional well-being – but … is self-compassion selfish and does it make us complacent?
Author, researcher and expert in the field, Dr. Kristin Neff, breaks down the myths of self-compassion.
Most people don’t have any problem with seeing compassion as a thoroughly commendable trait. It seems to refer to an amalgam of unquestionably good qualities—kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, empathy, sympathy, and fellow-feeling, along with an active impulse to help other living creatures, human or animal, in distress. But we seem less sure about self-compassion. For many, it carries the whiff of all those other bad “self” terms: self-pity, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-centered, just plain selfish. Generations removed from Puritan times, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t punishing ourselves for something, we risk moral complacency, runaway egotism, and the sin of false pride.
Consider Rachel, a 39-year-old elementary school teacher with two kids and a loving husband. A deeply kind person, devoted wife, involved parent, supportive friend, and dedicated educator, she also finds time to volunteer for two local charities. In short, she appears to be an ideal role model. But Rachel is in therapy because her levels of stress are so high—she’s tired all the time, depressed, unable to sleep. She experiences chronic low-level digestive problems and sometimes—to her horror—snaps at her own kids and even those in her class. Through all this, she’s incredibly hard on herself, always feeling that whatever she’s done isn’t good enough. Like many people, she’d never considered trying to be compassionate to herself. And if she did, the very idea of letting up on her self-attack, of giving herself some kindness and understanding, would strike her as somehow childish and irresponsible.
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And Rachel isn’t alone. Many people have misgivings about the idea of self-compassion, perhaps because they don’t really know what it is, much less how to practice it. Often self-compassion is identified with the practice of mindfulness, now as ubiquitous as sushi in the West. Although mindfulness—with its emphasis on being experientially open to and aware of our experience without being swept away by aversive reactivity—is necessary for self-compassion, it leaves out an essential ingredient. What distinguishes self-compassion is that it goes beyond accepting our experience as it is and adds something more—embracing the experiencer (i.e., ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful.
Self-compassion also includes an element of wisdom—recognition of our common humanity. This means accepting the fact that, along with everyone else on the planet, we’re flawed and imperfect individuals who are just as likely as anyone else to be hit by the slings and arrows of outrageous (but perfectly normal) misfortune. This sounds obvious, but it’s funny how easily we forget. We fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well and that when we make a mistake or some difficulty comes along, something must have gone terribly wrong. (Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the “everything will go swimmingly until the day I die” plan. Can I speak to the management please?) The feeling that certain things “shouldn’t” be happening makes us feel both shamed and isolated. At those times, remembering that we aren’t really alone in our suffering—that hardship and struggle are deeply embedded in the human condition—can make a radical difference.
Fortunately, this approach aligns with an impressive and growing body of research demonstrating that relating to our selves in a kind, friendly manner is essential for emotional wellbeing. Not only does it help us avoid the inevitable consequences of harsh self-judgment—depression, anxiety, and stress—it also engenders a happier and more hopeful approach to life. More pointedly, research proves false many of the common myths about self-compassion that keep us trapped in the prison of relentless self-criticism.
Myth 1: Self-compassion is a form of self-pity
One of the biggest myths about self-compassion is that it means feeling sorry for yourself. In fact, self-compassion is an antidote to self-pity and the tendency to whine about our bad luck. This isn’t because self-compassion allows you to tune out the bad stuff—in fact, it makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness, which paradoxically helps us process and let go of them more fully. Research shows that self-compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self-pitying thoughts about how bad things are. Instead of feeling poor me, there’s the simple recognition that life is difficult for everyone, including me. We can accept our struggle as normal and feel connected to others in our pain, at the same time that we commit to emotionally supportiving ourselves. That’s one of the reasons self-compassionate people have better mental health.
Instead of being a weakness, researchers are discovering that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us.
Myth 2: Self-compassion means weakness
John had always considered himself a pillar of strength—an ideal husband, an excellent high school math teacher and provider. So he was devastated when his wife left him for another man. Secretly racked with guilt for not doing more to meet his wife’s emotional needs before she sought comfort in someone else’s arms, he didn’t want to admit how hurt he still felt and how hard it was for him to move on with his life. When John’s colleague suggested that he try being compassionate to himself about his divorce, his reaction was swift: “Don’t give me that hearts and flowers stuff. I had to be hard as nails to get through the divorce with some semblance of self-respect, and I’m not about to let my guard down now.”
What John didn’t know is that instead of being a weakness, researchers are discovering that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us.
Studies show that when we go through major life crises, whether its a divorce or cancer or military combat, self-compassion appears to make all the difference in our ability to survive and even thrive. John assumed that being a tough guy during his divorce—stuffing down his feelings of shame and not admitting how much pain he was in—is what got him through. But John wasn’t “through,” he was stuck. And his shame was starting to creep into his work life, causing him to be harsh and reactive in a way that was starting to alienate his students and colleagues. Self-compassion was the missing piece that would’ve probably helped him to move on. It’s not just what you face in life, but how you relate to yourself when the going gets tough—as an inner ally or enemy—that determines your ability to successfully cope.
Myth 3: Self-compassion will make me complacent
Perhaps the biggest block to self-compassion is the belief that it will undermine our motivation to push ourselves to do better. The idea is that if we don’t criticize ourselves for failing to live up to our standards, we’ll automatically succumb to slothful defeatism. But let’s think for a moment about how educators successfully motivate their students. When a student receives a failing grade on a test even after studying, the teacher could look disgusted and hiss, “Stupid loser. You’ll never amount to anything. I’m ashamed of you.” (Makes you cringe doesn’t it? Yet that’s exactly the type of thing we tell ourselves when we fail to meet our own high expectations.) Educators don’t do this because they know a torrent of shame will just make students lose faith in themselves and eventually stop trying altogether.
Good educators are more likely to adopt an encouraging approach by saying something like: “I know you’re dissappointed. It happens to everyone, but failure is how we learn. Let’s talk about how you studied for the test and see if we can make some adjustments. What can I do to help and support you? I believe in you.” Notice that there’s honest recognition of the failure, sympathy for the student’s disappointment, and encouragement to go beyond or around this momentary bump in the road. This type of caring response helps people maintain their self-confidence and feel emotionally supported. Ironically, we don’t use this approach with ourselves when we fail or make mistakes. We somehow believe that self-flagellation is necessary to achieve our goals, and that anxiety, depression, and stress are a result of not trying hard enough.
There’s now a good deal of research clearly showing that self-compassion is a far more effective force for personal motivation than self-punishment.
There’s now a good deal of research clearly showing that self-compassion is a far more effective force for personal motivation than self-punishment. It helps us adopt learning rather than performance goals, reduces fear of failure and performance anxiety, and encourages a growth mindset. It also increases personal responsibility by giving us the safety needed to admit our mistakes. In order to achieve our best, we need to use the same principles that we know work with others. Support, encouragement, kindness, constructive criticism – and yes sometimes firm boundaries and tough love – are much more effective than belittling personal attacks.
Myth 4: Self-compassion is narcissistic
In American culture, high self-esteem requires standing out in a crowd—being special and above average. How do you feel when someone calls you an average teacher, average parent, or says your intelligence is average? Ouch! The problem, of course, is that, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone not withstanding, it’s impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time. While there may be some areas in which we excel, there’s always someone more attractive, successful, and intelligent than we are, meaning we feel like failures whenever we compare our selves to those “better” than ourselves.
The emphasis placed on self-esteem in American society has led to a worrying trend: the narcissism of modern-day college students is at record highs even though mental health is at an all time low.
The desire to see ourselves as better than average, however, to get and keep that elusive feeling of high self-esteem, can lead to some downright nasty behavior. Research shows that one of the reasons early adolescents bully others is to increase their self-esteem. If I can be seen as the cool tough kid in contrast to the wimpy nerd I just picked on, I get a self-esteem boost. Self-esteem also plays a role in prejudice. If I believe that my ethnic, gender, national, political group is better than yours, I get a self-esteem boost.
Indeed, the emphasis placed on self-esteem in American society has led to a worrying trend: the narcissism of modern-day college students is at record highs even though mental health is at an all time low. Researchers attribute this in part to well-meaning but misguided parents who tell kids how special and great they are in an attempt to raise their self-esteem. But self-compassion is different from self-esteem. Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self-worth, while self-compassion isn’t a judgment or an evaluation at all. Instead, self-compassion is way of relating to the ever-changing landscape of who we are with kindness and acceptance—especially when we fail or feel inadequate. In other words, self-esteem requires feeling better than others, whereas self-compassion simply requires acknowledging that we share the human condition of imperfection. That’s a box that can always be checked.
Myth 5: Self-compassion is selfish
Many people are suspicious of self-compassion because they conflate it with selfishness. Rachel, for instance, spends her days caring for her students, her evenings prepping for class and caring for her family, and her weekends volunteering for the two charities she supports. Raised in a family that emphasized the importance of service to others, she assumes that spending time and energy being kind and caring toward herself would automatically mean neglecting everybody else for her own selfish ends. Indeed, many people are like Rachel in this sense—good, generous, altruistic souls, who are perfectly awful to themselves, all the while thinking this is necessary to their general goodness.
But is compassion really a zero-sum game? Think about the times you’ve been lost in the throes of shame and self-criticism. Are you self-focused or other-focused in the moment? Do you have more or fewer resources to give to others? Most people find that when they’re absorbed in self-judgment, they actually have little bandwidth left over to think about anything other than their inadequate, worthless selves. In fact, beating yourself up can be a paradoxical form of self-centeredness. When we can be kind and nurturing to ourselves, however, many of our emotional needs are met, leaving us in a better position to focus on others.
Research shows that self-compassionate educators tend to provide more emotional support to their students in terms of creating a positive classroom climate, demonstrating sensitivity, and showing regard for student perspectives. In the realm of romantic relationships. self-compassionate people are described by their partners as being more caring, accepting, and autonomy-supporting than their self-critical counterparts. Self-compassionate individuals are also generally more forgiving and able to take others perspectives.
The research literature is unclear about whether self-compassion is actually necessary to be compassionate to others, given that many people do a pretty good job of caring for others while short-changing themselves. However, there’s a growing body of research indicating that self-compassion helps people sustain the act of caring for others. For instance, educators who are self-compassionate are less likely to experience stress and burnout. They’re also more satisfied with their careers and feel more energized, happy, and grateful for being able to make a difference in the world.
When we give ourselves compassion, we create a protective buffer allowing us to understand and feel for those who are suffering, without being drained by it. The people we care for can then feel our compassion through their own process of empathic resonance. In other words, the compassion we cultivate for ourselves directly transmits itself to others. When teachers empathically feel the pain of students struggling with anxiety, depression, family trauma, violence, eating disorders, and so on, combined with the other incredible pressures of the profession, how do they remain empathetic and connected without burning out? By validating and acknowledging how difficult their task is and giving themselves kindness and support in the midst of experiencing it all. Not only does this help oneself, the warm and peaceful state of mind cultivated internally will be felt by students.
I know this first hand through my experience of raising an autistic child. Rowan is now 18 and a loving young man who poses few parenting challenges. But it wasn’t always so. I often faced situations that I thought were beyond my ability to cope and sometimes had to rely on the power of self-compassion to get me through. Once, when Rowan was 5, I took him to England to see his grandparents. In the middle of the transatlantic flight, Rowan threw an almighty tantrum. I have no idea what set him off, but I suddenly found myself with a flailing, screaming child and a plane full of people looking at us with dagger eyes. What to do? I tried taking him to the bathroom in hopes that the closed door would muffle his screams. But after I’d shuffled down the aisle, trying to keep Rowan from accidentally hitting passengers along the way, I found the toilet was occupied.
Huddled with Rowan in the tiny space outside the toilet, I felt helpless and hopeless. But then I remembered self-compassion. This is so hard for you, darling, I said to myself. I’m sorry this is happening. I’m here for you. While making sure that Rowan was safe, 90 percent of my attention was on soothing and comforting myself. My mind became flooded with compassion, to the point that it dominated my experience—far more than my screaming child. Furthermore, as I’d already discovered, when I was in a more peaceful and loving frame of mind, Rowan also calmed down. As I soothed myself, he was soothed as well.
When we care tenderly for ourselves in response to suffering, our heart opens. Compassion engages our capacity for love, wisdom, courage, and generosity. It’s a mental and emotional state that’s boundless and directionless, grounded in the great spiritual traditions of the world but available to every person simply by virtue of being human. Educators already know how to be supportive and kind to their students, they just need to give themselves permission to be the same way with themselves. In a surprising twist, the nurturing power of self-compassion is now being illuminated by the matter-of-fact, tough-minded methods of empirical science, and a growing body of research is demonstrating conclusively that self-compassion is not only central to mental health, but can be enriched through learning and practice, just like so many other good habits. Being kind to ourselves isn’t—as is too often believed—a selfish luxury, but the exercise of a gift that makes us happier.
Kristin Neff is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, conducting the first empirical studies on self-compassion over a decade and a half ago. In addition to writing numerous academic articles and book chapters on the topic, she is author of the book “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” released by William Morrow. In conjunction with her colleague Dr. Chris Germer, she has developed an empirically supported eight-week training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, and has co-authored “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook” and “Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion program: A guide for Professionals,” both by Guilford.
To learn more about self-compassion, including videos, exercises, guided meditations, research articles (organized by topic), and a self-compassion test, go to: self-compassion.org. To learn about training in self-compassion go to www.CenterforMSC.org