Self-compassion: How to be more loving and authentic

15 January 2016

Do you ever wonder why is it okay to call ourselves names but when someone else does the same to us we don't take it well? Why is it so easy to pick up a crying baby and care for it with our utmost understanding, and yet when we are hurting when we are scared when we feel lost and sad – when we are the crying baby we turn into an uncaring mother?

It turns out I cared for my baby – the pain, the grief, the fear all wrong. At times, I would turn harshly at the baby and brush her off. “Why are you crying? There is nothing to cry about!” “Stop crying lot of people suffer much more!” “You're so weak just man up!” “Grow some balls, you wimp!”

Sometimes I wouldn't acknowledge the baby at all perhaps she would stop crying if I pretended not to hear. But of course, the baby would just start crying louder.

Other times I would feel sorry for the baby. “Oh, poor you!” “You're right your problems are the worst in the world. Nobody could ever understand.” And I would do the first thing to make the baby stop crying, like eating a chocolate cake, watching never-ending series, playing online games... the list is endless. But I wouldn't care whether it was good or bad for the baby all I cared about was to stop the pain.

How can we care for the baby without making it spoiled? How do we care for the pain, the fear, the grief that resides within us without creating more suffering? How can we feel and care for our pain without feeling inadequate?

Simply by practicing compassion. But it is not as simple as it sounds.

What is compassion

Compassion is the feeling when we recognize somebody else's or our own suffering and feel compelled to alleviate it. It is similar to empathy. We need to step into someone else's shoes but without over-identifying and with that extra element of wanting to alleviate the pain. We don't necessarily have to act on the feeling of compassion which makes the practice of cultivating compassion great. We don't have to leave our room or be with the person that we feel compassionate toward. But the more compassion we feel, the more we act on it and the more generous we are, the happier we are.

When I feel compassionate, I have warm fuzzy feeling in my heart, and at the same time, I feel restless. I get an urge to do something in greater good like working in a shelter, volunteering for a good cause, helping in the home for elderly,...

From the perspective of philosophy and religion compassion is considered to be one of the greatest virtues.

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
―Albert Einstein

Three elements of self-compassion

According to Ph.D. Kristin Neff, a lead researcher in self-compassion, self-compassion incorporates these elements:

1. Self-kindness

“What I'm going through is very hard right now.”

It is the welcoming, accepting and forgiving attitude towards our failings, inadequacies, fears, pains, losses while acknowledging them with an open heart and offering gentle and kind comforting.

2. Common humanity

“What I'm going through is very hard and I'm not alone. Everybody goes through adversity.”

Recognizing fears, pains, and adversity as common not only in our life but in all people's lives. Accepting adversity as part of human experience.

3. Mindfulness

“I am here and I see you.”

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in a present moment non-judgementally as if your life depended on it.

Mindfulness holds our moment by moment awareness in a balanced space – the fire is not too far so we don't get cold but also it is not too close so we don't get burnt. Without mindfulness, we wouldn't be able to recognize the pain to which we need to attend. How could we offer our compassion to a crying person on the bus if we don't see the person or if the person's pain causes us so much suffering we're unable to help?

What self-compassion is not!

Language is important to us, but we have to use it mindfully. We cannot ignore connotations and the unique interpretations of words through our individual perceptions. It is good to learn and understand our biases and seek the true meaning of words.

The misconception about self-compassion often circles around what the word means to us.

Let's debunk the common misconceptions.

Self-compassion is not selfishness and never can be.

Selfishness and narcissism arise from the growth of the self.

In the Western society, we put a lot of pressure on our sense of defined identity and to how much we like ourselves. We see self as something solid and constant with our body, thoughts, feelings and behavior strongly included in this concrete identity.

We have the need to evaluate our self positively in order to feel good about ourselves. We constantly seek validation intrinsically and extrinsically. What is worse we go about it by comparing ourselves to others or putting others down. We can feel threatened when the sense of self is undermined. And when we experience setbacks and failures when we try to grow and maintain our self-esteem we often feel shame.

In contrast, self-compassion quiets down the ego and minimizes the egoistic sense of self without ignoring or suppressing the self's needs.

Self-compassion is showing understanding and loving kindness to ourselves because we are human beings, part of nature and universe not because of a trait condition such as being smart, pretty, or talented.

Through compassion, we're able to see the self as a process and an experience rather than something solid. We become a part of something bigger and the self will no longer be the center of our existence. From this perspective, we also see our body, thoughts, and emotions as a lose part of the self and not the whole entirety of it.

Read: Psychological Self vs. No-Self

Self-compassion can not be selfless

If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
― Jack Kornfield

For the same reasons as above self-compassion cannot be selfless.

A selfish person thinks the best about himself with an over bloated sense of self and conversely we have the person that feels insecure and thinks the worst about the self and who perceives herself as less than somebody else.

When we are considering other people's needs or wants before our own it is not compassion but mere people pleasing. It shows how uncomfortable we are with our feelings to the point we don't even want to look at and recognize what is best for ourselves.

Selfless people do anything to eliminate uncomfortable feelings. They can't say no because it would bring feelings of inadequacy, they can't stand up for themselves because of fear and at the same time, they desperately want to be loved and appreciated.

Self-compassion plays a crucial role in the acceptance of ourselves and our feelings.

Self-compassion cannot be judgemental or critical

Practicing self-compassion requires kindness, understanding and an open mind.

By being loving, kind and non-judgemental, we can better see where we need to implement change and growth.

It is a better motivator than harshly judging and criticizing which only creates fear. Without self-compassion, we'll be less willing to take a closer look at ourselves because of this fear of beating ourselves up emotionally.

When we're self-compassionate, we can better recognize the harmful ways in which we act. Through understanding and an open mind, we're able to recognize the conditions that led us to behave this way. In other words, instead of looking through narrow glasses, we're able to see the whole picture and rather than condemning, shaming and judging the self we can validate and comfort ourselves. And when we offer loving kindness to ourselves and accept our feelings of loss and pain as they are, it is easier to take full responsibility for our actions.

Self-compassion is not self-pity

When we recognize our problem and start to over-identify with it, we may fall into the self-pity trap. We start to feel isolated and alone, and we may start to think we are alone in our suffering.

Feelings of isolation and aloneness are especially common for someone who is going through depression. Depression closes us in a bubble of our hurts and fears, and we lose the bigger perspective of being part of humanity that share the same adversities.

Self-compassion allows us to step back and take the approach of other towards oneself. We see ourselves through a wide open window where we aren't alone. We recognize our problems as well as the problems of others and can accept that there are people going through a lot more than us without devaluing our own suffering.

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence

Mindfulness allows us to recognize and hold everything in balanced awareness but more than that it allows us to listen to our bodies carefully and find out what is good for us.

If we combine this awareness with compassion turned towards oneself sooner or later, we'd realize that for example smoking is not good for the lungs, or that alcohol, sugar, stress and fatty foods are not good for the heart.

We'll turn into a caring parent. Parenting is hard. It takes practice to find the right balance. And it takes self-discipline not to act on our selfish impulses. Sometimes it's easier to give into the child's wants rather than his needs, but we have to realize that in the long run certain things are better for the child than others. With mindfulness and compassion, this becomes a much easier task.

Benefits of self-compassion

In this there is no judgment and no blame, for we seek not to perfect the world but to perfect our love for what is on this earth.
― Jack Kornfield

Motivation and self-improvement

Self-compassion is a better motivator than judgement and criticism. We are more likely to accept our mistakes when we take the fear of judgement and criticism out and substitute it with unconditional acceptance, love, and kindness. When we accept our mistakes, bad behavior, or failures, we can work on improving them and changing them. Self-compassion allows us to embrace healthy attitude toward ourselves and life.

Eudaimonic happiness

Eudaimonic happiness refers to meaning and self-realization. It is happiness derived from living a life of purpose rather than happiness which is derived from pleasure and avoidance of pain.

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Lowered symptoms of depression

Habitual criticism leads to depression on the other hand self-compassion can protect us against depression. Individuals who were high in self-coldness benefited from the warm kind and an open heart of self-compassion and their symptoms of depression have lowered.

Adopting forgiving and kind mindset allows us to deal with countless life's difficulties. Self-compassion improves our emotional well-being, wisdom and emotional intelligence, and has a positive impact on our life satisfaction, social functioning and ageing while lowering symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.

How to put self-compassion into practice

Often when we feel uncomfortable emotions the first reaction is to push them away or wanting to change them and make things better, but self-compassion is about validating and accepting the feelings as they are, and kindly holding ourselves in the moment until the emotion passes and we heal.

Putting self-compassion into practice may be hard.

If you're like me you've spent your entire life wanting to be better or different by criticizing yourself and looking for the next thing to improve or the next failure to put youself down for and always comparing to somebody else, it is important to acknowledge this and finally allow ourselves to be kind to ourselves. It is equally important to train ourselves to catch the critic and attacker inside us because we are so used to being harsh on ourselves the criticism and judgement can go completely unnoticed.


Cultivate mindfulness

Before you go to sleep or after waking up, set the intention of trying as best as you can to be present all day. And during the day try to align your body with your mind rather than losing yourself in your thoughts. And when you catch yourself thinking - planning, worrying, judging, criticizing, or recalling a memory gently get back to the present moment and to whatever you are doing in that moment.

For example, when you're taking a shower, feel the water falling on your skin, examine the sensations. Is it warm? How does it make you feel? Acknowledge and accept the thoughts and feelings as they come without wanting them to be different. Do the same with any activity during the day and when you find yourself overwhelmed or anxious step back, take a break and get back to the intention of being mindful.

Soothing touch and kind tone of voice

As humans and as mammals we are programmed to get soothed by touch and gentle sounds. This exercise may seem awkward and uncomfortable at first, but research shows that touch calms, gives us a sense of safety and lowers stress, so why not to give it a try.

When you recognize the critical voice or a distressing moment, you may choose to put your hands over your chest or belly, or hold them tightly together, or give yourself a hug or cradle your face. Find what feels best for yourself. Feel the gentle pressure and warmth of your hands while following your breath.

Studies show that when we modify our body posture to reflect an emotion, we start to feel the emotion. By holding yourself you may trick your mind into feeling self-compassionate.

Write a letter

Write a self-compassionate letter to yourself every day for one week.

Think about the issues that you judge yourself for. It may be a failure you've experienced or an imperfection in your appearance.

Now imagine that you are looking at yourself through eyes of a friend who is wise and who accepts you unconditionally. Or imagine somebody you love and accept unconditionally it can even be your pet. Stay with the feeling for a moment. And then write the letter from the perspective of this unconditional love and acceptance.

Think about what would this friend say about the inadequacies you have. How would he show care, support, and encouragement?

It may go something like this:
I know I am going through a hard time right now, and I'm really sorry about that. It is very difficult to accept my illness and the way it changed me. It hurts. Sometimes the invisibility of depression makes it hard to acknowledge that there is something wrong, but I have enough information to realize how real this illness is. My life changed, and a lot of circumstances contributed to this illness. I often feel angry, scared, and overwhelmed. And I know even when it is hard and almost unbearable that it's okay even natural to feel this way, after all, I'm not alone in feeling this way there is so many people struggling with the same. I'm doing the best I can right now and it's enough. It is hard but I'm moving forward even if I'm just taking little tiny steps, I'm still moving...

Read: Self-compassion Exercises

Final word

Cultivating self-compassion has so many benefits one of the most prominent is the effect it has on my mental health. I also find that through self-compassion I can be more loving and compassionate towards others and most of all I can be true to myself.

How do you care for your baby? Do you find it hard to be kind to yourself? Share your experiences below. All your thoughts are valued and appreciated.


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  1. This is so interesting because the entire focus of my therapy sessions with my psychologist revolve around self-compassion and the fact that I find myself unlovable. This was SUCH a detailed post, certainly worthy of being published in a professional journal. Wow. I'm amazed at the time it must have taken you to write this. It was full of information that will change the lives of many who take the time to truly allow themselves to understand your words and more importantly, believe them. I'm not there yet, but one day!

    1. Thank you Sandra. I'm humbled. And... the inadequacy, the imposter syndrome screams in my face right now. I myself need to read this article over and over again.

      It'll take a lot of time to break the ingrained habitual thinking and reactivity to shame, judgements and criticism we place on ourselves. I'm not there yet either. In fact I do the research and write these articles mainly to learn myself. We're all in it together.

  2. Mmm, yeah, but all the 'don't be so hard on yourself' in the world doesn't come close to empathy and a hug from someone else. It's connection I need. I don't see how I'm supposed to be an island and stand alone - no one is an island.

    1. Thank you for your comment Marsh. I agree connection is very important for our well-being as well as empathy and compassion. They do deserve an article of their own. ~Iva