“To love oneself,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is the beginning of a life-long romance.” As is the tale of every love story, times will bring both sun and storm, testing our deepest intentions on how we relate to ourselves. Love comes easy on good days, when our self-esteem stands tall on our accomplishments. It’s when we fall that our self-directed goodwill often deserts us. Suddenly, we remember all our faults. Our internal monologue muds with harsh judgments. We blame and shame ourselves for our pain. We abandon ourselves and look to whoever (and whatever) would give us comfort. One way to winning back our own hearts and reclaiming our well-being is through self-compassion.
As a concept derived from Buddhist psychology, self-compassion entails treating oneself with kindness and care, like we would treat a dear friend. Kristin Neff, one of the leading self-compassion researchers, has identified three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness, feelings of common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness refers to acting in kind and understanding ways towards ourselves. For example, instead of being critical (I’m so disorganized! I’ll never be successful!), our inner voice is supportive and warm (It’s OK that I missed the deadline. I worked hard and I’ll make it next time). A sense of common humanity is the recognition that everyone makes mistakes and no one is without their weaknesses. Accepting that we are not alone in our suffering comforts us with feelings of inclusivity rather than alienation. Finally, mindfulness offers a “meta-perspective” on our hardships, helping us to not exaggerate our distress and become engulfed by it.
A wealth of research has shown the positive consequences of self-compassion on numerous aspects of our well-being, including a greater life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, interconnectedness with others, wisdom, curiosity, happiness, and optimism. Self-compassion is also associated with less self-criticism, depression, anxiety, fear of failure, and perfectionism (Neff, 2009). Importantly, to reap the benefits of self-compassion, we don’t need to compare ourselves to others or inflate our egos. Thus, self-compassion can lead to greater emotional resilience, since unlike self-esteem, our heightened feelings of self-worth will not be contingent on our successes.
Strategies for increasing self-compassion
Chris Germer, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Mindful Self-Compassion training program, has been witnessing firsthand the transformative power of self-compassion among his clients. He views self-compassion as an antidote to the habitual threat-based reactions (fight, flight, freeze) that people have when things go wrong. Instead of becoming self-critical (fight), abandoning ourselves (flight) or getting stuck with “why me?” ruminations (freeze), self-compassion gently turns us towards self-care.
Here are some behavioral and mental strategies from Germer on how to increase self-compassion.
Just as you would with a dear friend who is struggling, ask yourself this question:
“What do I need?”
Surprisingly, as Germer points out, we are not very good at answering this question for ourselves when we feel under threat. When you can’t identify your needs, asking yourself the next question can help you towards the right direction:
“How do I care for myself already?”
Consider the ways you care for yourself when things are going well (such as exercising, being with friends, listening to music). Do your best to incorporate some of these ways into your life during difficult times.
The mental training of relating to ourselves with compassion begins with getting some distance from ourselves. Ask yourself:
“What would I say to a dear friend in a situation like this and how would I say it?”
Our tone of voice towards our friend (and thus ourselves) should be one of kindness and warmth that would highlight our care and affection for this person (and thus ourselves).
According to Germer, self-compassion is a dynamic process consisting of yin and yang attributes. One entails nurture (comforting, soothing, validating) and the other is about action (protecting, providing, motivating).
Depending on the situation, you may need different ways of being compassionate with yourself. For instance, you can comfort yourself with your caring words and gestures (putting your hand on your heart like you would embrace a friend). You can soothe yourself by taking a nap or doing a breathing meditation. You can find validation in acknowledging your struggle (I know things are really hard right now.) Other times, being self-compassionate may mean protecting yourself (by saying “No!”), providing for yourself through good nourishment and plentiful sleep, and motivating yourself like you would encourage a friend (You can do this! I believe in you!).
There are many paths towards well-being, growth, and self-kindness. Yet, the success of these strategies, assures Germer, will depend on one fundamental caveat.
It’s not what you do, but why you do it.
Let’s say you are lying awake at night, unable to fall asleep, your heart pounding with aftermaths of a recent setback, your mind racing with self-criticism. Then, you remember about the benefits of self-compassion and attempt to ease your suffering with your encouraging words and perhaps even your comforting hand on your heart. On that stormy night, whether your self-compassion will work or not will depend on your answer to one question, says Germer. A question that highlights the central paradox of self-compassion. A question that cannot afford cheating. Why are you being compassionate towards yourself? Because you want to feel better now, or because your heart “spontaneously melts” with kindness towards yourself whenever you are feeling bad.
The very nature of compassion rests on an unreserved instinct for kindness. Consider the depth of sentiment—benevolence, care, warmth, empathy—you feel when you see someone you love in pain. Or, consider a bleary-eyed mother cradling her sick child in her arms. There is nothing pre-meditated or strategic about her compassion towards her suffering child. Similarly, when it comes to our own suffering, self-compassion should not be practiced as yet another wellness-boosting strategy, says Germer. Rather, as a simple, humble act of kindness. “Since compassion is omnidirectional, we are just adding ourselves—just a little person in the corner of the picture, me too. And it’s life-changing,” assures Germer.
Thus, self-compassion begins with the intention of wholehearted kindness towards ourselves—not as a tool to manipulate our emotions in order to feel better in the moment; not as a means to fix our pain. “When we struggle, we practice self-compassion not to feel better,” says Germer, “but because we feel bad." According to Germer, it is those who understand this simple yet profound wisdom of self-compassion that go on to thrive in their lives.
As one of our human family, don't exclude yourself from the circle of compassion. When times are difficult, seeking comfort in our unconditional goodwill towards ourselves could become a lifeline for our well-being. Remember, you yourself deserve your kindness. “You yourself,” as the Buddhist saying goes, “as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
Many thanks to Chris Germer for his time and insights. Germer is a clinical psychologist who teaches mindfulness and compassion in psychotherapy and is the co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion training program. His website offers various free meditations and informal mindful self-compassion exercises.
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–102.
Neff, K. D. (2009). Self-Compassion. In M. R. Leary & R. H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior (pp. 561–573). New York: Guilford Press.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self‐compassion, self‐esteem, and well‐being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1-12.