Recently I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with psychologist Kristin Neff, who is an expert on self-compassion. I had read a little bit about self-compassion, but I was excited to get some more information from the expert. What is self-compassion? How does it work? Are there any drawbacks to self-compassion?
Dr. Neff described self-compassion as being similar to how you might treat a good friend when they are suffering. Or think about how a loving parent might treat a child who is hurting. Self-compassion is the process of channeling those kind and supportive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward ourselves when we are suffering or hurting.
Most of the time our usual stance is the opposite of self-compassion. When we are struggling, we might judge ourselves harshly, or call ourselves bad names. “I’m so stupid!” “I’m never going to get this right!” “Ugh, I’m so fat and ugly!” We treat ourselves in a way we would never think about treating a good friend or child.
There are three main components to self-compassion:
- The first component of self-compassion is self-kindness. Self-kindness involves being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we struggle or fail, rather than ignoring our feelings or judging ourselves harshly.
- The second component of self-compassion is common humanity. Part of self-compassion is recognizing that suffering and falling short of our standards is something that all humans have to deal with. It’s part of what it means to be a person. We all struggle—it’s not something unique to you or me.
- The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness. Mindfulness involves an objective stance toward negative emotions. The mindful person observes and accepts the present moment as is, without trying to deny or suppress one’s feelings. Part of self-compassion involves being able to sit with negative emotions and turn toward them, rather than trying to escape from them.
One question I had for Dr. Neff was whether there were any downsides or drawbacks to self-compassion. Specifically, I was thinking about whether self-compassion might reduce one’s motivation for change, because it alleviates some of a person’s pain and suffering. Dr. Neff said the research hasn’t shown that self-compassion reduces one’s motivation for change. Importantly, self-compassion is different from self-indulgence. Think about how a loving parent might interact with a child. Compassion for the child doesn’t necessarily mean the parent lets the child stay stuck in a pattern of poor behavior. The loving parent has the child’s best interests in mind, so they might encourage the child to grow and change. However, the loving parent does so in a compassionate manner, rather than shaming the child into change. It’s the same way with self-compassion. Self-compassion might be a better starting place for change than heaping a heavy burden of guilt and shame on yourself.
Action Step: Are you compassionate toward yourself? Take this quiz here and find out.