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Resilience Goes Hand-in-Hand With This

Research shows the real skills and practices that make us resilient.

Source: Jeff Thompson, Ph.D.
Source: Jeff Thompson, Ph.D.

Let me start off with the spoiler alert in the headline: It’s self-compassion. Yes, self-compassion. Who would have thought that a critical component to resilience is the hard-core, science-backed practice of self-compassion? Not me.

Are you skeptical like I initially was? Here are results from a research study by Rabon and her colleagues (2019) for you to think about:

  1. Self-compassion in military veterans negatively correlated with depressive and PTSD symptoms, anger, shame, thwarted belongingness, and feeling like a burden to others.
  2. Bolstering self-compassion in military veterans can also help reduce suicide risk.

Some people might still be thinking there’s a typo—that it really is supposed to say self-esteem.



Before explaining why self-compassion is necessary for our resilience and mental health, let’s first knock down self-esteem’s own self-esteem. From Dr. Kristin Neff’s research and book, Self-Compassion, and a Q&A she did with The Atlantic:

  1. Self-esteem relies on positive and successful outcomes. It only thrives when things are going well and it abandons you when things go bad or you fail.
  2. People who excel in areas important to their self-esteem are the most vulnerable to let-downs.
  3. When you take self-esteem too seriously, it can lead to narcissism. Narcissists tend to have high self-esteem.
  4. Bullying can be viewed as searching for self-esteem in all the wrong ways.

Check out this video on self-compassion

I’m not saying self-esteem is bad, either. Neither is Neff:

“Although problems are associated with the pursuit of high self-esteem, high self-esteem is not bad in and of itself. It’s clearly much better to feel worthy and valuable than worthless and insignificant. It’s just that there are both healthy and unhealthy pathways to high self-esteem …

"Puffing up your ego and putting other people down is not so great."

What Neff is explaining is the negative part of self-esteem, which often is not the “what” but the “how” we get self-esteem. This also includes unfairly comparing ourselves to others and being contingent on the results of situations.

Look at it this way: If you are going to have a dose of self-esteem, consider adding a triple dose of self-compassion too.

Self-Compassion Explained

Self-compassion is described as pausing to acknowledge our own suffering and acknowledging that we are not perfect. Self-compassion is being kind to ourselves, and Neff adds an “understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”

And don’t be mistaken with thinking self-compassion means to have a “pity party” for yourself or that your problems are worse than everyone else’s. Neff clarifies this:

“Self-compassion involves wanting health and well-being for oneself and leads to proactive behavior to better one’s situation rather than passivity. And self-compassion doesn’t mean that I think my problems are more important than yours, it just means I think that my problems are also important and worthy being attended to.”

Let’s now explore the benefits of having self-compassion. Self-compassion is associated with feeling satisfied with life and a sense of feeling socially connected to others (Neff & Germer, 2013). Both are also closely connected with resilience and overall mental health.

The research on having self-compassion tells us that it:

  1. Increases the ability to cope with negative emotions.
  2. Improves self-confidence.
  3. Better control over their emotions.
  4. Feel less of a need to socially compare themselves with others.
  5. Less likely to have compassion fatigue with others.

Neff explains how self-compassion is exactly what we need to help us bounce back, especially during tough times:

We need to feel calm, secure, and confident in order to do our best… researchers who study motivation have consistently found that our level of self-confidence has a dramatic impact on our ability to reach our goals.

So, in one sense, self-compassion is the opposite of being self-critical. Self-criticism is simply not effective in helping you achieve your goals as it tries to motivate you based on fear and it creates anxiety.

Instead of inducing fear and anxiety, having self-compassion in ourselves can increase our optimism with our outlook on things. And you guessed it, resilient people are also optimists. Optimism is connected to another important term: self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is believing in ourselves and our abilities.

Reivich and Shatte explain:

“Resilient people are optimistic, they believe that things can change for the better. They have hope for the future and believe that they control direction of their lives …"

Optimism implies we believe we have the ability to handle the adversities that will inevitably arise in the future. And of course, this reflects our sense of self-efficacy, our faith in our ability to solve our own problems and master our world, which is another important ability in resilience.”

Tips for building self-compassion:

Imagine It Is Your Friend. Not sure if you are being too hard on yourself, or if you catch yourself being overly critical ask yourself this? How would you treat a good friend, family member, or someone else you really care about if they were going through what you are? What would you say to them? Try then doing that for yourself. Remember, you should be your biggest advocate, not your biggest enemy and naysayer.

Catch Yourself From Falling Into Thinking Traps. These are thinking errors that are not helpful. As a matter of fact, ask yourself two things if you catch yourself being overly critical: Is it helpful? Is it accurate? Some examples of thinking errors, also called “Thinking Traps” by Reivich and Shatte and originally described as “cognitive distortions” by Drs. Aaron Beck and David Burns are (from Dr. Seth Gillihan):

Black and white thinking. Seeing things in extreme ways: “If I don’t pass this test I’m an idiot.”

Shoulding. Thinking the way we want things to be is the way they ought to be: “I should have been more patient.”

Overgeneralization. Believing that one instance applies to every situation: “I was late for work today, I can’t do anything rightever.”

Catastrophizing. Thinking a situation is much worse than it is: “A customer got really mad at me today so my boss is probably going to fire me.”

Emotional reasoning. Assuming our feelings convey useful information: “My nervousness about flying means there’s a good chance my plane will crash.”

I highly recommend checking out the full list and reading Gillihan’s fantastic book.

Supportive Touch

According to Neff, this exercise activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Controlled breathing practices are a critical part of building resilience and your mental health. In this version, you simply take a few deep breathes while you put your hand on your heart as you do it. Feel your heart and chest area rise and fall naturally.

Make sure though to breathe in a manner where it is coming from your stomach area, not your chest. Breathing this way will still move your chest area gently though. Check out this easy exercise for one minute.

If you don’t feel comfortable putting your hand on your heart, try another location like your abdomen.


Self-compassion is not about relieving yourself of your grit, passion, or perseverance when things do not go your way and you nonchalantly give up and dismiss it. This brings to mind the “everyone gets a medal” concept and this is not the true idea of self-compassion. Nor is self-compassion the sole element of resilience and positive mental health either.

When things don’t go our way and situations arise beyond our control, it is our self-compassion, along with our other resilience practices, that will help us get through it in a positive way and regardless of the outcome, avoid us from dwelling on it and getting stuck in a loop of negative actions and thoughts. Instead, self-compassion allows us to be fair with ourselves, learn from it, and go forward.

More from Jeff Thompson Ph.D.
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