Self-Compassion vs. Letting Yourself Off the Hook
Some ways to tell the difference.
Posted Jun 24, 2020
People may fear that being kind to themselves when they make a mistake could lead them to become complacent or lazy. But research suggests that self-compassion typically does the opposite, making us more honest with ourselves and more motivated to pursue our goals.
If you’re unsure whether you’re being genuinely self-compassionate or just letting yourself off easy, ask yourself the following four questions.
1. Are you able to acknowledge both your strengths and weaknesses?
When faced with criticism, it’s not uncommon to react defensively, downplaying negative feedback and affirming our positive qualities. Sometimes this response is warranted (not all criticism is fair), but other times we may miss potentially useful information. By contrast, self-compassion involves a mindset of accepting imperfections and recognizing that we’re all human, which may make negative information easier to accept.
Research has found that self-compassionate people tend to feel less threatened by social evaluative tasks (such as a mock job interview) and to view their performance more realistically, neither inflating or deflating it. In one study, college students were asked to complete a somewhat embarrassing task—making up a children’s story on the fly—then evaluated their own and others’ performances in terms of qualities such as awkwardness, competence, confidence, and creativity. The results showed that self-compassionate participants tended to see themselves similarly to the way their peers saw them, suggesting that they may have more accurate self-views.
So if you’re feeling good about yourself but can’t bear to face any areas where you might also have room to improve, you’re probably not being very self-compassionate. Instead, it may be that you’re being overly harsh, not allowing yourself to have faults.
Note though that doing the reverse and fixating on your faults can also be a way of letting yourself off the hook. We might think, “This is just the way I am and there’s nothing I can do to change it” about a behavior that is in fact in our control, which absolves us from responsibility. By contrast, self-compassion inspires taking responsibility for what we can change—and taking the initiative to change it.
2. Are you considering your overall health and well-being, or are you focused more on your preferences in the moment?
Sometimes we do things that feel good in the short-term but cause problems for us down the line, like staying up late watching TV or eating foods that could harm our health. We might think of this as a way of treating ourselves, and certainly there are some situations where a little self-indulgence doesn’t hurt. But self-compassion differs from this mindset because it’s rooted in genuine care for our own well-being, and what feels best in the moment isn't always what’s best for us in the long run. Just as a parent doesn’t indulge a child’s every wish, part of being good to ourselves is setting limits when necessary.
Research has found, for example, that self-compassion can help people stick to a health-promoting diet (in this case, eliminating gluten for people with Celiac disease), reduce smoking, and recommit to an exercise goal following a setback.
So if you're thinking, "I'm just being nice to myself," but you’re suffering for it after the fact, ask yourself what it would look like to truly be kind to yourself.
3. Do you feel compassion for others as well as for yourself?
Just because it includes the word “self,” self-compassion isn’t all about you. It stems from a sense of common humanity, which is the recognition that suffering is a part of being human—it isn’t something we alone experience. A self-compassionate thought might be, “This is a hard thing to go through,” as opposed to, “Poor me” (though we can certainly also feel compassion for ourselves for having an occasional “Poor me” moment when times are tough).
In one study, young adults reported every few days on events that had happened to them and how they reacted. Self-compassionate participants were more likely to disagree with self-focused statements like “I seem to have bigger problems than most people do” and “Why do these things always happen to me?” even though they experienced similar types and degrees of negative events as less self-compassionate participants.
In other research, self-compassionate people were viewed as more caring and supportive and less controlling or verbally aggressive by their romantic partners. They have also been shown to be more accepting not only of their own imperfections but also more accepting of the shortcomings of romantic partners and acquaintances. That is, self-compassionate people don’t just cut themselves some slack; they also extend this forgiving spirit to others.
So if you’re not feeling as charitable towards others as you are towards yourself, it may be because you’re overwhelmed with what you're going through, in which case you could probably benefit from more—not less—self-compassion.
4. Are you ready for a challenge, or are you playing it safe?
We may feel reluctant to try something new if we’re unsure whether we’ll be successful, like taking a difficult class, trying to break an unhealthy habit, or joining an online dating service. Especially if we’ve been burned in the past, it can be scary to leave ourselves vulnerable to the possibility of failure or rejection. And protecting ourselves may seem like the self-compassionate thing to do.
But actually, research has shown that self-compassionate people are more likely to want to challenge themselves and go beyond their comfort zone, potentially because they're less afraid of failure. From a self-compassionate perspective, failure isn’t something to be ashamed of but rather is a normal and common human experience and an opportunity to learn something valuable about what might work better in the future. It’s easier to take a chance when the possibility of things not working out feels less threatening.
So if going easy on yourself means not taking risks in pursuit of a goal that’s important to you, it may stem more from fear than from self-compassion.
In summary, a lot of things can disguise themselves as self-compassion, from avoiding responsibility to taking the easy road. These are understandable reactions, especially in difficult circumstances, but they’re unlikely to serve us the way self-compassion can.
Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 887–904.
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-Compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-102.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 1–12.
Neff, K. D., & Beretvas, S. N. (2013). The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships. Self and Identity, 12(1), 78–98.
Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y.-P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity, 4(3), 263–287.
Zhang, J. W., Chen, S., & Tomova Shakur, T. K. (2020). From Me to You: Self-compassion predicts acceptance of own and others’ imperfections. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(2), 228–242.