The Truth About Self-Compassion

I work with a lot of pretty amazing people. People who are motivated and determined to become better than who they were yesterday. They take responsibility for what happens in their lives, strive for self-improvement, and are willing to do the work necessary to become the people they wish to be. You know who you are...shout out to my clients :)


But as humans do, they run into barriers. It might be their own self-doubt, their fears, or unexpected stressors distracting them from their goals. They’re feeling incredibly stressed out and don’t know what to do. They are not sleeping well, constantly worried, snapping at their spouse and kids. However hard they work at their job, they feel like it’s never good enough. They're feeling isolated, wondering how everybody else is able to do it and they can't.

They come to me assuming that there is something inherently wrong with them that needs to be fixed, so that they can be this ideal version of themselves that they’re striving to achieve. They’ll say things like:

“I shouldn't be feeling this way”

“This shouldn’t be so hard”

“I should be able to handle this”

I’m sure you can relate. We've all been there.

I call it “shoulding yourself,” which is my fun way of describing self-judgment.

So when I bring up the fact that what they may need is more self compassion, I can tell by the look on their face that they think I am talking about some touchy-feely hippie BS that’s just not relevant to them.  

"So you're just going to tell me that I need to love myself more?”

Wellllll... yes, that's a part of it.

"But isn't it healthy to criticize yourself so that you can improve and be motivated to work towards being a better person? I feel like I wouldn't get anything done if I was just loving myself all the time.”

This is a very common response, and it makes a lot of sense because this is what a lot of us have been taught most of our lives- shame and criticism and fear of negative judgment leads to corrected and improved behavior. If we grow up hearing this from (often well-meaning) parents, teachers, coaches, we’re going to learn to talk to ourselves the same way. And for some of us, it’s tough to let go of because it has worked well for us in terms of our accomplishments...but what good are our accomplishments if we’re miserable from beating ourselves up all the time?

So how is self-compassion supposed to help us live more satisfying lives? Well first of all we have to understand what it means. Self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff describes it this way:

“First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”

In her book, Self-Compassion, Dr. Neff dispels several of the myths that we often have about self-compassion...myths that have I’ve noticed come up quite frequently when I bring up this topic with clients...

Myth #1: Self-compassion is selfish.

It’s true, there are people who are suffering as much or more than you are right now. That doesn’t mean your own suffering should just be swept under the rug. Is it possible to have compassion for your own circumstances as well as for those of others? Of course it is. Just because you’re giving yourself comfort, empathy, and understanding during a time of need does not take anything away from anyone else who is suffering. In fact, like I mentioned in Self-Care as Political Warfare, giving yourself this kindness ultimately allows you to be more compassionate towards others and a source of support for those in need without completely burning out.

Myth #2: Self-compassion is weakness.

In our culture, we continuously get the message that if we experience any kind of negative emotion, we need to fix it. We need to be strong, push through it, and be happy. If we’re not happy, we’re weak because we’re clearly not trying hard enough to “feel better.” This sends the message that there must be something wrong with us...everyone else can do it, why can’t you? You then start “shoulding” yourself, which ultimately causes more pain and keeps you stuck.

So you may have noticed, like I have, that these messages don't work all that well for us when it comes to coping with difficult times, at least not in the long-run. Rather than it being a weakness, research shows that self-compassion is actually one of the most powerful sources of resilience we can tap into. I believe it also takes a very strong person to accept painful feelings and sit with them without making an effort to change or “fix” them. 

Myth #3: Self-compassion is self-indulgence

Some people think about self-compassion as giving in to your every need or desire, and subsequently having no self-discipline. No, sorry, giving into your craving to eat half a pack of Oreos when you’re feeling sad is not self-compassion, that’s self-indulgence. Self-compassion is about what’s best for you long-term, and that might sometimes mean you experience short-term “pain” (not eating the cookies, going for a run, meditating), rather than pleasure. So at the end of the day, self-discipline is still very much a part of self-compassion because the focus is on your overall sense of well-being and health, not on instant pleasure.

Myth #4: Self-compassion is complacency

This is related to the myth above, but it’s a little bit different in my mind because it’s more about willpower and motivation. As mentioned earlier, some people incorrectly believe that if they give themselves compassion for their failures or suffering (instead of self-criticism), they will not push themselves to be better and make necessary changes. They will just accept their shortcomings or their situation in life because they no longer fear the self-judgment that normally motivates them to do better.

Turns out, according to the research, that self-criticism does indeed work when it comes to motivation. It does help us follow through on our goals because fear is a powerful motivator. But the drawbacks are: paralyzing anxiety and depression, self-handicapping (procrastinating or not trying very hard so we can blame these behaviors for a poor outcome rather than our own abilities), and chronic physical and emotional stress (I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you why that’s a problem). Self-compassion motivates you just as much as self-criticism, but without the drawbacks because the motivating factor is love, not fear.

Myth #5: Self-compassion is about self-pity

I’ve heard some people assume that self-compassion is about self-pity or wallowing in one’s own pain and suffering. Interestingly, self-compassion has the opposite effect- it actually makes you less likely to feel sorry for yourself and become absorbed by negative feelings. Instead of “why me?” the question is “why not me?” I’m a human being, of course I’m going to experience negative events, failures, rejection, etc. That’s part of existing. So by embracing our negative feelings instead of avoiding or fighting them off, self-compassion helps to remind us that we’re all in this together. It allows us to gain perspective and remind ourselves that pain and suffering is not something that we alone are experiencing while everyone else is frolicking around having a great time. Everyone experiences this pain at one point or another, and by tuning into this we can also have more empathy and compassion for those around us.