Call to mind a time when someone has treated you with true kindness; a time when you've felt seen, cared for, and important. When you haven't felt alone, because someone is there with you, in whatever situation you're in. How did they speak to you? How did they look at you?
Now think about how you usually treat yourself. Is it anything like the first scenario?
Being kind to ourselves isn't often something that comes very naturally, or that we think is worth putting effort into. We don't question the value of treating others with kindness, and generally we wouldn't argue that kindness towards us doesn't matter, so it's not that we don't think kindness is important; it's that there are barriers to us allowing ourselves what we think others need and deserve. We push on, thinking we'll be fine, thinking we SHOULD be fine, not wanting to show 'weakness', berating ourselves for being human and having limits. Creating one set of standards for other people, and another (usually harsher and unrealistic) set of standards for ourselves.
Over the past few years I've seen an increase in conversations (out in the world and on social media) about the importance of self-care. These are often linked to ideas around it being okay to rest, that you need to 'put your own oxygen mask on first', that self-care isn't selfish, and lots of practical ideas for how to look after yourself. All this is great, and I'm glad we're talking about it, but in my opinion conversations and tips around 'self-care' can focus too much on what we do to look after ourselves - a nice bubble bath, time alone with a good book, drinking plenty of water etc. - but what is more important is how we look after ourselves. You can spend an hour in a nice bubble bath but spend the whole time criticising yourself for being lazy when there's so much else you could be doing. To the outside world this might look like self-care, but is it?
It can be hard to find the time to do the sorts of things that we enjoy and find restful, the classic 'self-care' activities. We can't rely on just getting through to the next time we have a break, we need to find other ways of caring for ourselves all the time.
This is where self-compassion comes in.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion isn't an action, it's a way of being. Kristen Neff, a leading researcher in the field, defines self-compassion as treating ourselves with kindness and concern when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or being self-critical. It involves recognising that being imperfect is inevitable, understanding that suffering is part of the universal human experience, and being gentle with ourselves as we accept this - treating ourselves the way we would treat a friend.
This might look like:
Wondering why we feel how we do rather than jumping to critical conclusions
Forgiving ourselves for past 'mistakes'
Catching when we speak harshly to ourselves and speaking kindly instead
Making decisions based on what we need, not what we think we 'should' need/want
Seeing challenges as a way to grow and learn
Not pushing aside or ignoring our emotions
Looking after our whole selves and building awareness of our mental, physical, social and emotional needs
What are the benefits of Self-Compassion?
Firstly, self-compassion is hugely beneficial to us. Research shows it lowers stress, improves motivation, reduces rumination and perfectionism, and is associated with reduced levels of mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Being more self-compassionate helps us to deal with difficult situations more resiliently; people who are more self-compassionate experience less extreme reactions to negative events, have more accepting thoughts, and are more likely to put their experiences into perspective than people who are less self-compassionate. It also helps to reduce our fear of failure and increase our confidence that we would be able to cope with it, making us more likely to try things that we want to do and experience new situations.
Secondly, there is a benefit to those around you: if you are more compassionate to yourself you will be more compassionate to others. Being compassionate isn't just about being nice to people, it is about being willing to really see someone else as a person with feelings who matters, being moved by their pain and wanting to prevent or lessen their suffering. It is a deep caring. And whilst you can 'turn on' a helpful attitude out in the world and direct this towards other people, it actually takes practice to become a more compassionate person. This is why in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), people will be taken through exercises where compassion flows out as well as in. Here's an analogy I'm fond of: If you're carrying a cup of coffee and someone bumps into you, you'll spill coffee. Why? Because coffee was in your cup. If you had been carrying a cup of tea, you would have spilled tea. If you want to go out into the world and spill kindness all over the place (and drink it in yourself!), you have to spend time brewing kindness and pouring it into your cup.
It's also harder to be kind to people when we're not having our own needs met. The more we feel insecure, worthless, or that our needs are threatened, the more we will be absorbed in trying to 'fix' that. But when we are more compassionate towards ourselves, more of our emotional needs will be met, making us more likely to have the emotional energy to invest in other people.
Why is it hard to be self-compassionate?
1. We think it's self-indulgent.
Self-compassion isn't self-indulgence. It doesn't mean that you let yourself get away with anything and don't do anything you might find difficult - because this isn't what we need in the long term. Often we think that being hard on ourselves is how we will get ourselves to change or perform better, but shame isn't a motivating emotion. Imagine you are a primary school teacher and you have a five year old in front of you who hasn't done well in their most recent spelling test - do you think that child is more likely to improve if they are punished, or if they are encouraged? If their struggles are minimised and berated, or understood and empathised with? I've yet to have anyone say the latter, but most people recognise that this is the way they are more likely to treat themselves. Research shows that self-criticism actually makes us less likely to learn from our failures; it diminishes our creative thinking, so although we might want to do things differently we're less likely to know what to do and how to do it. Self-compassion isn't a luxury, it's a necessity if we're going to thrive.
2. We don't think we deserve it.
We have real problems with seeing ourselves as worthy just because. The need to strive, to earn our place, to prove we deserve to be here, and to justify what we want for ourselves runs deep in different ways. We are encouraged to think about our worth in measurable ways, from our qualifications to the numbers of likes we're getting on social media, and it's hard to give ourselves unconditional love - especially for people who don't feel they have received this from others.
3. Compassion involves recognising pain - and that is painful.
Compassion literally means "to suffer with". It can be easier to suffer with others because you can maintain some distance from their pain, but having to acknowledge your own can feel overwhelming. It can also make you realise times when you haven't been kind to yourself, or others haven't been kind to you. If you think that this would be a really difficult challenge for you, for example because of trauma or grief, seek professional help to support you with this so that it can be explored safely.
4. We confuse self-compassion with self-esteem.
Self-esteem is more about thinking of ourselves positively, but this is inextricably linked with well-being and achievement. We talk about successes boosting people's self-esteem, and failures and mistakes being bad for someone's self-esteem. A drive for high self-esteem also encourages disconnection from other people because it's all about comparison and being better at something than someone else. In contrast, self-compassion emphasises connection with people, based on shared human experiences.
5. It's hard.
We tend to see our 'failures' as more extreme than other people's and judge ourselves more harshly. Our inner compassionate voice has to constantly fight battles with critical inner voices, critical outer voices, 'shoulds' and expectations, unrealistic demands, worries… It takes a lot of effort to find the compassionate voice and let it have a seat at the table, and although it does get easier the more you use it, it's not a task you do once and then reap the benefits of. This is something we need to do over and over again, because our well-being is something we have to constantly commit to looking after.
So what can you actually do with all of this? Here are some ideas of how to start building your self-compassion:
Practise the how, not the what. Whether the next thing you eat is a carrot or a doughnut, practise allowing yourself to choose and eat it. Remind yourself that you can be compassionate towards yourself no matter what the situation is, no matter how you're feeling - that's the point.
Notice when you criticise yourself and choose to offer yourself an alternative. You don't have to believe what you say, you just have to plant a seed of doubt to move away from believing that the automatic criticism is true.
Tell a friend/partner/colleague/parent (someone you speak to fairly often and trust) that this is something you're working on, and allow them to point out when you're being harsh on yourself and encourage you to say something kind to yourself before they jump in and do it.
Come up with a mantra that you need to hear every day. You know your biggest struggles, your most common sources of self-criticism, so come up with one short compassionate sentence (it could be a quote or song lyric if you're struggling to generate something yourself) that will be meaningful to you that you can say to yourself every morning - try this for a week.
Practise mindfulness. Rather than over-connecting the now to the past and the future, which can lead to sweeping negative generalisations about ourselves and our situations, notice your current thoughts and feelings and just accept them as they are. Name them, wonder about them, but don't judge them. It's fairly inevitable that your mind will wander to a place of judgement - that's normal, try to notice that and bring your attention back. If practising this skill with feelings is too hard at first, try some more general mindfulness exercises.
Neff, K. D., & Costigan, A. P. (2014). Self-compassion, wellbeing, and happiness. Psychologie in Österreich, 2(3), 114-119.