Self-Compassion: Definition, Examples, and Exercises
What is self-compassion? Why is self-compassion important? And how do you develop more self-compassion? Find out here.
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What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is defined as giving yourself the same compassion you'd give others. That means that in order to have self-compassion, you need to notice that you are suffering. Then you need to feel moved by that suffering. You may feel warmth, caring, or the desire to help yourself. So you react in ways that are understanding and kind. Self compassion means that instead of being harsh with yourself when you are suffering, you comfort and care for yourself.
We are often our own worse critics. When we practice self-compassion, we might remind ourselves that everyone has flaws and makes mistakes and there is no need to judge ourselves. Self-compassion researcher, Dr. Kritin Neff, says that we are self-compassionate when we "honor and accept our humanness." And in her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, she says the goal is to stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether.
Video: Self-compassion defined
Why is self-compassion important
Self-compassion expert, Joy Johnson LCSW, says in The Self-Compassion Workbook that in the modern world, we're expected to be as efficient as possible. This can make us self-critical and hold ourselves to unrealistic standards. The pressure we put on ourselves can become overwhelming. When we have self-compassion, we can identify when we fail to meet our standards or live our values, but we don't judge ourselves so harshly for these normal human failures.
The elements of self-compassion
What is self-compassion made of? The Self-Compassion Workbook explains that there are several parts or self-compassion:
1. Mindful awareness
Mindfulness involves present awareness. It's paying attention to what's right in front of you and letting go of whatever thoughts, emotions, or distractions might be pulling you away from the present moment.
With non-judgement or self-acceptance, you try not to judge yourself for your flaws or imperfections. You accept yourself as you are and may even delight in your uniqueness or idiosyncrasies.
3. Living your values
When you know your personal values, you can more easily make decisions in accordance with those values. When you live by these values there are fewer opportunities to judge yourself. You are living your life in the way that is right for you and there is less need for self-criticism.
4. Loving kindness
Loving kindness is "tender and benevolent affection". When given towards yourself, it can also be thought of as self-kindness. Key to self-compassion is this loving self-kindness. You're not being a jerk or bully to yourself either.
How self-compassionate are you?
Here are some questions to help you evaluate how self-compassionate you are. Ask yourself, are you:
Or do you:
By answering these questions for yourself, you can get a better sense of how self-compassionate you might be.
Now you know more about self-compassion, but how do you start building it? Here are some strategies: (For even more self-compassion strategies, check out The Self-Compassion Workbook)
1. Let go of negative thoughts
When you're having negative thoughts, try to imagine a blue sky with white clouds. Put each of those thoughts on a cloud and watch them float away. This exercise can help you see that negativity doesn't have to be a part of your thinking anymore.
2. Confront your inner critic
When you make a mistake and find yourself being self-judgmental, take a moment to pause and confront your inner critic. Ask yourself, what self-critical things are you saying to yourself? What are some counter-arguments for these thoughts? Why might your thoughts be untrue or mean and how can you make them kinder?
Video: Self-compassion exercises to beat the self-critic
3. Write a self-compassion letter
Research has shown that writing self-compassionate letters can decrease depression and increase happiness . Here's a more structured self-compassion activity that shows you how to write a self-compassion letter to help you build this skill.
4. Use positive affirmations
Positive affirmations are kind words we say to ourselves. When we use positive affirmations, we remind and begin to convince ourselves that these positive thoughts about us are true. That's why using positive affirmations can help boost our self-compassion.
5. Try to eliminate the word "should" from your vocabulary
When we tell ourselves that we "should" do something, be something, or feel something, we are just judging ourselves. There is no right way to do something or right way to be. Loosening our standards or rules for ourselves can help us be more self-compassionate.
6. Practice loving-kindness for yourself
Practicing loving kindness meditation has been shown to result in several benefits to our well-being . So try this or other self-compassion meditations to build these skills.
Video: Self-compassion meditation
7. Change your attribution style
We can end up feeling a lot of negativity about ourselves when we have certain attribution styles. For example,
We you find yourself using these attributions, try to stop and question them. If you are responsible for the bad things, then you are also responsible for the good.
8. Take a self-compassion break
Sometimes when we're being hard on ourselves, we just need to take a quick self-compassion break. Doing so can help remind us that we have the strength to move forward, even during stressful times. Try this self-compassion break activity or watch the self-compassion break video below.
Video: Self-compassion break
9. Give yourself permission to feel
Sometimes when we're being self-critical we don't allow ourselves to be or feel what we want. This suppression of emotions can actually be bad for our mental health. So give yourself permission to feel whatever is true for you.
10. Forgive yourself
One of the ways we are hard on ourselves is that we don't forgive ourselves for doing bad things. Now, it's not a bad thing to recognize the things you've done wrong or that hurt people. But it's also important to remember that you are human and to give yourself a break. We all make mistakes and holding those mistakes against yourself forever is going to make it tough to live happily.
11. Be good to yourself
Many of us with self-worth issues can unconsciously set ourselves up to feel worse by putting ourselves in situations that make us feel worse. Try being good to yourself and reminding yourself about your positive attributes, or thinking about your strengths rather than your weaknesses.
1. Shapira, L. B., & Mongrain, M. (2010). The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(5), 377-389.
2. Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.