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Many of my clients get confused by what self compassion is, and I do sometimes too.
What exactly is self compassion and why is it important?
I like this definition:
Self-compassion is being sensitive to our pain or suffering and wanting to alleviate it.
I found this definition in a book I am reading right now called The Neuroscience of Empathy, Compassion, and Self-Compassion.
To be sensitive to our pain and suffering, we first need to be aware of it, so being mindful is essential.
Self-compassion also requires that you want to alleviate your suffering skillfully.
People are often afraid if they are self-compassionate they will never hold themselves accountable for doing anything important. The opposite is true. Self-compassion doesn’t mean JUST being nice to ourselves to soothe your pain and suffering. Self-compassion isn't indulgent or avoidant. It is wise and skillful. Like good parenting, it loves and cradles you first, but then calls you to hold yourself accountable to be the best you that you can be and to make good choices for yourself.
For this reason, I like this definition.
Self-compassion is being mindful of our pain or suffering and intentional about soothing and comforting ourselves so that we can alleviate our suffering in a kind and wise way.
Just being aware of your pain and suffering can be a step to work on! Self-compassion is a skill that takes effort and dedication to develop but it's worth it as there is quite a payoff!. You see how self-compassionate you are by using this tool developed by Dr Kristen Neff the self-compassion scale (SCS). This scale is used in the research studies that have been done over the past 17 years (there are well over 1000).
The Neuroscience of Empathy, Compassion, and Self-Compassion does a great job of summing up the research on what self-compassion is. It is mind-blowing. Learning how to be self-compassionate improves every facet of your life.
Kristen Neff has divided the definition of self compassion into the components of mindfulness, common humanity and self kindness.
Mindfulness is being able to face and be aware of our diffiuclt feelings. I find that this in itself can be a challenging skill to learn. Most of us want to run from our diffiuclt feelings because we don't have the skills to face them.
Common humanity is the awareness that we aren't alone in our suffering. If we are having a difficult time or emotion, it's likely that others in similar circumstance have or are currently having the same emotions or difficulties. recognizing this helps to validate our experience, and decrease our sense of isolation.
Self kindness is the intention to be kind and compassionate to ourselves. To want to relieve our own suffering. This can be cultivated and begins with the attempts to say kind words to ourselves in times of difficulty.
From these studies we know that the more self-compassion you have the less likely you are to be:
and the more likely you are to:
There is a plethora of compelling research, and more being learned every day.
For now, know that it's a really good idea to learn how to be more self-compassionate.
Almost all of us need to learn how to become self compassionate.
Well most of us didn't grow up being told that the way to happiness and success was by being self compassionate. We are taught to criticize ourselves to motivate ourselves from an early age. We are taught to compete, to put others down to feel better about ourselves, or to feel less than when we don't measure up to those around us. We live in a world where as children we are primarily shaped by shame, punishment, and fear. As adults it's no different. Look in any workplace or in any church. At our core most of us feel defective and deficient. We feel unlovable and unworthy. Self compassion is a completely foreign concept. No wonder it is so incredibly powerful once we get the hang of it!
Moreover, the consensus now is that we have difficulty begin self-compassionate because we aren't wired to be so. Negativity bias has been proven to be present in our brains by science. We are more likely to pay attention to thoughts, emotions, and experiences that are negative, and less likely to pay attention to those that aren't. Self-critical and berating thoughts seem urgent and important. Evolution ensured the fittest who survived paid attention to that which was scary or dangerous on the outside. Now, we take those rules and apply them to what's going on inside our minds. This is kind of like evolution gone wrong, and we haven't yet gotten wise to what is up with our brains.
Or maybe we are evolving right now. Research points to feelings of self-compassion decreasing our cortisol levels. And...the same areas of our brain that would be responding to the threat of, say, a saber tooth tiger, respond when we are self-critical. Yet, we can be self-critical hundreds of times a day. That puts incredible stress on our bodies! Putting yourself in the flight, flight, or freeze cycle continuously throughout the day taxes our body. It releases cortisol, epinephrine, increases our heart rate and blood pressure. This stress can exacerbate anxiety and depression as well. Learning about these research studies makes me more determined to refine my skills to teach self-compassion and commit myself to these practices.
On these pages will be ideas for how you can learn and practice strategies of self compassion. My clients have found that self compassion is tremendously helpful with both anxiety and depression.
Click here for to learn about compassionate imagery.
References for What is self compassion
Stevens, L., & Woodruff, C. C. (2018). The neuroscience of empathy, compassion, and self-compassion. London: Elsevier Academic press.
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This page is about how self-compassion and mindfulness and skills such as forgiveness, kindness and compassion can help us with depression and anxiety.