What Is Self-Compassion and Why Do We Need It?

Is being hard on ourselves effective in changing behaviours?

Posted Sep 28, 2020

In Western culture, many people mistakenly believe that self-criticism is useful, that it can motivate us to be better people; that if we’re hard on ourselves, we’re more likely to improve. But research actually shows the opposite. Numerous studies have found that self-compassion, rather than self-criticism, is more useful for motivating change (Zhang and Chen 2016), and therefore it’s very useful for helping us stick to healthy habits.

Researcher Dr. Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as involving three main parts. The first is self-kindness, being kind, caring, and loving to oneself. The second is common humanity, recognizing that setbacks, personal feelings, and mistakes are all part of being human. And the third is mindfulness, being able to notice and be present in a nonjudgmental way (2003a, 2003b).

According to Dr. Neff, self-compassion is not self-pity. With self-pity, we’re focused on the “Why me?” But that is the opposite of common humanity. Self-compassion is also not self-indulgence, nor is it self-esteem. Our culture is obsessed with self-esteem, which usually involves comparing ourselves to others and trying to downplay our faults in order to maintain high self-esteem. This is the opposite of recognizing that we all have faults and failings, which are aspects of common humanity.

Research suggests that self-compassion is linked to improved health, life satisfaction, and well-being and to lower anxiety, depression, and stress (Pinto–Gouveia et al. 2014; Hope, Koestner, and Milyavskaya 2014; MacBeth and Gumley 2012; Miyagawa and Taniguchi 2016; Neff 2003b; Neff, Rude, and Kirkpatrick 2007; Zessin, Dickhäuser, and Garbade 2015). Research also suggests that self-compassion is related to persistence while undertaking difficult tasks (Neff, Hsieh, and Dejitterat 2005; Hope, Koestner, and Milyavskaya, 2014; Neely et al. 2009).

For example, researchers conducted a study in which participants worked on a difficult math problem (Neff 2013). The researchers weren’t interested in whether the participants could solve the math problem. In fact, the problem was unsolvable. They were interested in how much effort participants would put into trying to solve the math problem, or how much persistence they showed. The longer participants worked, the more persistence they showed.

One group received self-compassion instructions first, and the other group regular instructions. Self-compassion instructions include things like “As you work on this math problem, try to be kind to yourself,” or “Remember, this might be a difficult task for most people, not just you.” The group that received the self-compassion instructions spent more time trying to solve the math problem. In other words, they persisted for a longer time at a difficult task. Thus, the study linked self-compassion with persistence when faced with difficult tasks. And you know that engaging in any health behavior is a difficult task!

Self-compassion also helps us persist in the face of mistakes and setbacks, all of which we will face in our efforts to be healthy. So our ability to be compassionate is a critical skill for helping us stick with healthy habits. Self-compassion is also a skill that you can practice and improve. In a future post, we will also discuss the importance of self-compassion during COVID-19.