Understanding the Power of Self Compassion
"I tried my my best."
"Everyone makes mistakes."
"I wish I'd done better, but it's not the end of the world."
To people raised with the "everybody's a winner" high-self-esteem mindset, statements like these might sound like lame excuses, sad-sack give ups, hallmarks of weakness.
But, in fact, the self-compassionate attitude these statements represent has tremendous power to help achieve goals; reduce stress; and promote mental, physical and emotional well-being.
An exciting and fast-growing body of research is finding that practicing self-compassion has quantifiable benefits. It can facilitate weight loss; speed emotional recovery after divorce; help inoculate members of the military against PTSD. It soothes women struggling with negative body image; stressed mothers of autistic children; people coping with the realities of aging. It leads to healthier behaviors, such as going to the doctor and exercising. It can help alleviate test anxiety and fear of public speaking.
Self-compassion is a gentle powerhouse that beats high self-esteem cold.
Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, became interested in self-compassion when she started practicing meditation and Buddhism, which advocates self-compassion, to help her deal with the stress of graduate school.
"I almost immediately saw the benefits of it," she says. "And I had done some work with self-esteem and saw all the potential downsides of that."
In about 2000, shortly after joining the faculty at UT, Neff launched the first studies into self-compassion, and since then, interest in it has snowballed. Nearly 500 journal articles and dissertations, more than half in the past two years, have been published on the topic since Neff's first paper was published in 2003. And although self-compassion might sound like a vague, touchy-feely concept, a preponderance of empirical evidence speaks to its benefits.
Self-compassion is a simple practice: It's treating yourself with the same compassion you extend to other people. It's not letting the voice in your head say crueler things about yourself than you would ever dream of saying to a friend.
Neff, whose book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself was published in 2011, breaks self-compassion into three elements:
- Being kind and understanding to ourselves when we struggle or fail.
- Acknowledging our shared humanity.
- Being mindful of how we perceive negative thoughts and feelings, so that we neither exaggerate them (which is self-pity) nor suppress them, but rather observe them without judgement.
And, she says, getting self-esteem by comparing yourself with others has the potential to lead to all sorts of problems, such as bullying and prejudice, when we belittle others in order to maintain a precarious perception of ourselves.
In addition, she points out, research suggests that self-esteem may have triggered an epidemic of narcissism and entitlement; she has experienced this among the students she teaches, who grew up during the self-esteem era. "Some people take self-esteem really literally," she says. "They think, 'not only am I special, I am entitled.'"
And not only is high self-esteem based on unrealistic standards, it's also contingent on success, making it difficult to maintain in the face of inevitable failures or struggles.
"When you get fired, do you think 'I'm a worthless person?' Are you ashamed? Self-esteem deserts us when we fail," Neff says. "It's a fair-weather friend."
But because it's not an evaluation of worth, self-compassion can be the umbrella you need in personal storms. "Self-compassion is there especially when we fail, when we make mistakes, when we screw up," she says. "It provides a more stable sense of self-worth."
People who come to see her are often struggling with a critical inner voice, says Susan Eldredge, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in Dallas. "I've called it an internal bully; the bully in your head," she says. "And it is a direct indicator that self-compassion is low or nonexistent."
Elderedge frequently brings mindfulness and self-compassion in the therapeutic process, sometimes recommending clients read books such as The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer, or Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. And she has seen the problems the good-bad polarity of self-esteem can cause.
"Self-esteem is an internalized power struggle," she says. "You're either all good or all bad. And that's at the core of shame. Self-compassion is the antidote to shame."
And, she says, "Lack of self-compassion creates rigidity, where everything is an assault on yourself. Rigidity is easily broken. You're brittle. Self-compassion is flexible."
It can be difficult for people to recognize the harsh way they speak to themselves, she says. "It's an unconscious process, it's the only language we know," she says. "If we grew up speaking French, we don't really think that we're speaking French."
Some people believe that harsh self-talk is motivating—that kicking themselves in the rear is the best way to get things done. This is not true, and it's one of the biggest barriers to self-compassion, says Neff.
"If you're less afraid of failure, you're more likely to try again and more likely to keep trying," she says. "It enhances motivation, it doesn't undermine it."
"There is no positive element to beating the self up," says Eldredge. "It depletes your energy. An attack on the self will invariably meet with active resistance. It actually drives a lot of the beliefs and behaviors that can cause problems interacting with others."
Self-compassion isn't about pretending you have succeeded when you have failed, nor does it make excuses for your failure. It only means that you are gentle with yourself in the face of failure or feelings of inadequacy.
And, by the way, people who are higher in self-compassion also tend to have high self-esteem, says Neff. "It's a healthy source of self-esteem," she says. "It's noncontingent self-esteem; you feel good about yourself just because you're a human being."
Self-compassion is honest, nonjudgmental and forgiving.
"Self-compassion is about accepting and being transparent about all aspects of our behavior, and it promotes healing, accountability, self-acceptance and self-forgiveness," says Eldredge.
"It's actually easier than you think," says Neff. "When you set your intention, when you choose to be kind to yourself, everything starts changing."
One of the exercises Kristin Neff suggests to help develop self-compassion is “How would you treat a friend?”
Take out a sheet of paper and answer the following questions:
- First, think about times when a close friend feels bad or is struggling. How would you respond to your friend in this situation (especially when you’re at your best)? Write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.
- Now think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Write down what you typically do, what you say, and note the tone in which you talk to yourself.
- Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why.
- Write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering.
How self-compassionate are you?
Kristin Neff has a test on her website, www.selfcompassion.org, as well as self-compassion exercises, guided meditations and links to other resources.