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The Surprising Impact of Self-Compassion

Posted by Laurie J Cameron

Life is not always a walk in the park - at work or at home. Failures happen, contracts are canceled, people move on, illness occurs. One of primary things that get in the way of flourishing is our habits of how we relate to what is hard. Often, there is a pattern of self-criticism, feeling as if you are not doing enough, or that you need to do better. Scientific American Mind in the May/June 2017 issue reports that a growing number of people are discovering that self-compassion can be a surprisingly effective strategy to alleviate the common pattern of  self-criticism.


What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion means treating yourself with the same understanding and kindness that you would offer a friend. The pioneer in self-compassion research, Dr. Kristen Neff, discovered that there are three parts to self-compassion: the recognition that this is a hard moment, that hard moments are part of being human, and in those moments extending kindness to yourself.

Neff explains that "when we are in touch with our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are shared by all." This is what distinguishes self-compassion from self-pity. Self-pity is about “poor me” but self compassion reminds us that everyone suffers, because it is part of being human.

Self-compassion is not letting yourself off the hook – it has been found to increase motivation required to persist in a task after failure. When dealing with challenging or traumatic events, self-compassion enhances resilience.


What gets in the way?

People that struggle with self-compassion do not necessarily have a hard time being compassionate towards others. Rather, they hold themselves to a higher standard than they expect of anyone else.  Self-compassion teaches self-acceptance versus constantly feeling like your are not doing enough, or need to do better.

Some fear that being self-compassion is self-indulgent, self-centered or weak. The research finds quite the opposite – a powerful “no.” Since the publication of Dr. Neff’s seminal work in 2003, there has been a flood of scientific research in the field of self-compassion, and the evidence shows that self-compassionate people are more motivated to take action and improve, more emotionally stable, and a greater sense of well-being.


Mindfulness and self-compassion

In a set of studies done in 2012 by Ashley Batts Allen and Mark Leary at Duke, they found that self-compassionate people are less bothered by the fact that they need help, and will seek help when needed. Leary explains that if your self-compassion is low, you are using too much emotional energy thinking about the bad feelings and not enough addressing the real issues. A core quality of mindfulness is acknowledging and accepting reality the way it is, without judgment. Acceptance of difficult situations reduces resistance, which in turn reduces emotional distress. Self-compassion is a strategy to promote and amplify acceptance.


Stronger relationships, greater resilience

There is wide impact - self-compassion flows over into your relationships. When you care for yourself,  you can be more present and sustain more compassion for others.  I have seen this repeatedly in my own relationship with my teenager, partner and colleagues at work.

When you are self-compassionate you are better able to bounce back after difficulty. Research shows self-compassionate people are more psychologically resilient, from studies of people experiencing divorce, caregivers and combat veterans. Kristen Neff sums it up this way ”It is not what you face in life, it is how you relate to yourself when you face very hard times.”


3 Step Self-Compassion Practice*

1. Mindfulness. Recognize that this is a hard moment. "This is tough. Okay, it's like this right now and it is not easy."

2. Common Humanity. Extend the mindfulness of the challenge to a broader awareness of being human, realizing you are not alone in this experience... "many people experience pain, are late for a meeting, drop the ball, hurt others, lose someone..."

3. Kindness. Offer yourself compassion, as you would a friend. "It's okay, sweetheart, or "You' ve got this." 

In a recent Search Inside Yourself mindfulness program I was teaching in Paris, the self-compassion discussion was really rich. As participants were leaving the 2-day program, they told me that the phrase "It's okay, sweetheart" during tough moments was one of the most impactful lessons they were taking away - and that went for men and women. Experiment with placing your hand on your chest, when you say the 3 phrases - you will get the added benefit of the soothing touch with the physical weight of your hand, and a release of the "feel -good" hormone oxytocin as well.

*Adapted from Dr. Kristen Neff

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