What Exactly Is Self-Compassion?

For those of you who are familiar with Eastern philosophies, self-compassion may seem like a no-brainer.  However, for most of us who live and breathe in the Western world, this concept of self-compassion is only obliquely understood.  Some people detest that word because they believe it means being too forgiving of the self, too lenient, and fear that it will endorse laziness in some way.  I could see how some might assume this. 

The self-compassion craze that is booming in today’s society is often clouded in nice, fluffy, and pretty Instagram posts of quotes (I’m guilty of this) emboldening positive messages of perseverance, resiliency, and doing loads of self-care.  While this side of self-compassion is still important, it can often cloak the real emphasis of the practice in vagueness and pretty pictures. 

Self-Compassion, according to Dr. Kristin Neff, PhD, “means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”  To expand on this, it’s helpful to think about an experience you had when you looked at someone, or an animal, who was suffering and felt a sense of deep caring and a desire to extend kindness toward that person (or animal) and help them through the pain. 

The way we respond to ourselves is equally important.  It’s typical for most of us to approach our mistakes with criticism and judgment.  Any of these sentiments sound familiar? “I should have known better.  I’m such an idiot for saying that.  What a dumb decision to make, I’m so stupid”. My hunch is that most of you reading this engage in this kind of self-dialogue a few times every day, sometimes without even realizing it. 

Our self-criticisms have become so automatic, that often times we are unaware of the running story in our mind telling us how we’re “not good enough” and that "no one is interested in you anyway”. How sad that this automatic narrative gets more airtime than any other self-evaluating thoughts in our minds.

Being self-compassionate does not mean that you never take ownership of your actions or you excuse yourself of accountability. 

The aim of self-compassion is to encourage self-acceptance first and foremost. Can we, without shame, acknowledge and accept that sometimes we have violent thoughts, lie to others, and say things we don’t mean while also accepting that we are kind, loving and have the desire to find happiness? Self-compassion is about responding to all the parts of the self with kindness, and being open to learning from our experiences instead of judging them.

For example, the self-compassionate response to making a mistake with a coworker would be “Wow, this experience is really tough right now.  Mistakes happen, and I’m no different from the rest of the world in this regard.  How can I care for myself and learn from this experience in this moment?” or “This is part of the human experience.  Difficult experiences are normal and part of everyday life.  How can I extend kindness toward myself and honor this difficult moment?”

Another cool thing about self-compassion, is that it’s different from self-esteem.  In western culture, self-esteem is often associated with achieving some sort of success or value determined by our peers.  In early childhood, we are often awarded or congratulated for doing something special or above average.  While this isn’t inherently a bad thing, it can seep into our unconscious as the only way to feel good about ourselves. 

Self-compassion does not ask you to be anything, do anything, or achieve anything.  It asks you to simply be human, deserving of your own love and kindness.  If you’re someone who considers themselves a high achiever, you may struggle with self-esteem if your sense of worth and value is based on what you accomplish.  However, you can be a high achiever AND have self-compassion when things don’t go perfectly.  In fact, I’d say that oddly enough it will lead you to better outcomes in your life, long-term successes (because they’re based more on how you want to show up in the world, rather than how much you achieve), and sustainable self-worth.  

Being kind to yourself does not have to show up as sparkly positivity, sugarcoated niceness, or even overly indulgent forgiveness.  It can be as simple as you wish.  “May I be kind to myself in this moment” or “May I learn to face reality without hiding behind the veil of self-esteem” or “I feel hurt and stuck in how to express it. May I hold space for myself to understand and process what I’m experiencing”.

This week, consider the ways in which you can show up for yourself in moments of pain with honest self-compassion.