The Science of Self-Compassion

While we try our best to be supportive of our loved ones, many of us struggle with self-compassion. We are often too harsh with ourselves, turning blame inwards and replaying the mistakes we have made on a loop.

However, punishing ourselves for our failures and being too tough on ourselves may actually hinder our performance, and treating ourselves with more kindness and compassion is a better way to achieve the results we want. Self-compassion is an emergent area of research with the potential to help us develop a kinder approach to work and life.

The three pillars of self-compassion

Compassion can be defined as the desire to alleviate someone else’s suffering. It involves being sensitive to how others are feeling or being treated, and it motivates us to help relieve the discomfort of others, including physical and emotional pain.

Self-compassion is simply the act of showing this same kindness towards oneself.

Dr Kristin Neff is an associate professor in the department of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. Dr Neff has extensively researched self-compassion, describing the ways that self-compassion is closely related to wellbeing, and its influence on healing in psychotherapy.

As part of her work, Dr Neff has identified three pillars of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Pillars of Self-Compassion

Self-kindness exists in contrast to the self-critical approach that many of us are familiar with. When we turn criticism inwards, we might blame ourselves for not being good enough, or form negative thoughts regarding our inability to cope with life’s challenges.

In the same way that we would be kind to a friend in distress, Dr Neff claims that we should also aim to comfort ourselves in difficult times by self-soothing and behaving thoughtfully towards our inner self.

Common humanity involves recognizing that imperfection is a trait shared by us all. We are not alone in our mistakes and will all struggle at some point in life. Rather than thinking that our failures make us weak, unworthy or isolate us from others, this pillar of self-compassion encourages us to foster a sense of universal belonging.

The final pillar, mindfulness, necessitates finding a measured response to difficulty or distress. If you experience uncomfortable emotions, a mindful approach entails striking a balance between ruminating on the distress and stifling your feelings.

When facing unpleasant problems, whether from one’s own mistakes or through no fault of one’s own, mindfulness allows for observation of the present moment without evaluation or over-identification of emotions.

When put into practice, Dr Neff’s three pillars interact to create a state of mind that favors self-compassion when faced with distressing life experiences, self-perceived inadequacies, and the mistakes we all make. And this approach comes with many evidence-based benefits.

The scientific benefits of self-compassion

Self-compassion has been shown to provide many benefits. In her book Compassion and Wisdom in Psychotherapy, Dr Neff writes that practicing self-compassion is linked to less anxiety and depression.

We might incorrectly assume that this is because those who are compassionate towards themselves naturally have a sunnier personality or have honed the skill of avoiding difficult feelings. However, even when self-criticism and low mood are accounted for, self-compassion remains beneficial for mental wellbeing because those who try the practice learn to recognize when they are struggling.

This self-awareness allows people to be kind to themselves. In these moments, they can then more effectively deal with any feelings of anxiety provoked by circumstantial difficulties.

Self-compassion can also lead to empowerment — the feeling of being strong, competent, and holding the belief that we can succeed.

For example, researchers Olivia Stevenson and Ashley Batts conducted a study into the impact of self-compassion for female domestic abuse survivors. They found that, when asked about a previous fight, women who showed more self-compassion reported a significantly better impact on their wellbeing. The researchers concluded that self-compassion led to feelings of empowerment, which was beneficial for processing and recovering from trauma.

Developing self-compassion can bolster our inner strength and resilience as well. To be mindful, we observe our feelings without interacting with them. During mindfulness practice, you might recognize that you feel shame or regret over a mistake you made. Observing this feeling without ruminating on it, and then accepting that everyone makes mistakes, can help develop strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

Finally, self-compassion is a learning tool. If a work project falls short of expectations, self-criticism will undermine your professional development. If a friend was in a similar situation, you would likely be encouraging and understanding of their mishap. Similarly, by practicing self-compassion, you will avoid falling prey to defeatism.

How to practice self-compassion

We are often much better at showing compassion for others than we are at directing it inwards. When learning how to practice self-compassion, it is therefore helpful to imagine how you would treat a friend in your situation. Think about what you would say to them, how you might try to help, and the tone of voice that you would adopt.

Next, think about how you usually treat yourself in the face of failure. If you treat yourself differently to others, ask yourself which factors or fears lead to this disparity, and how you could close that gap to treat yourself with the same warmth, understanding and compassion that you offer your friends.

Over the course of several weeks, be mindful of critical self-talk. Proactively adjust how you talk to yourself to include more kindness, encouragement, forgiveness and acceptance.

Writing can be a great metacognitive strategy to practice self-compassion. Writing a letter to yourself from an unconditionally loving imaginary friend is an effective way to demonstrate self-kindness using metacognition.

If you’re faced with a challenge or difficult situation, thinking about yourself from an outsider’s point of view can be beneficial in learning to treat yourself in the same gentle way that you would care for a friend. In this way, the distance metacognition offers can help to counteract feeling weak or unworthy of kindness.

Most of us treat our friends with compassion when they make a mistake or are facing a difficult situation. However, under similar circumstances, we are often much harsher on ourselves. Developing self-compassion can lead to increased empowerment, strength, and resilience. When it feels difficult to turn compassion inwards, reflecting on how we would treat a friend in the same situation is a simple way to foster self-compassion.

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