Discovering Self-Compassion

How many of us truly feel good about ourselves? It is often the case that in order to feel worthy we need to feel special and above average, or at the very least, “good enough”. This is problematic when it is (by definition) not possible for everyone to be above average! In part for this reason, psychology has moved away from the concept of high self-esteem as being desirable, and has moved towards researching the wellbeing benefits of self-compassion.

What is self-compassion? 

One way to understand the meaning of a concept is to consider its opposite. The opposite of self-compassion is being self-critical, which is unfortunately much more familiar to most people. Nonetheless, nearly everyone is familiar with feeling compassion for another living being, whether that be someone we love, or an impoverished community, or animals. Paul Gilbert defines compassion as a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of suffering… coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it. Having self-compassion is identical to this, simply directed towards the self.

The definition identifies the four key aspects to self-compassion:

  1. Awareness – Being attentive to the fact that we are suffering in some way, emotionally and/or physically
  2. Normalising – Recognising that experiencing pain is universal; it isn’t a fault or failing of ours, and we’re not alone in our pain
  3. Kindness – Not shying away from or ignoring the pain, but meeting this pain with feelings of kindness, care, warmth, and concern
  4. Alleviation – Considering how we might help reduce our pain and move through the struggle we are facing

A freely available questionnaire at www.self-compassion.org can give you an indication of your level of self-compassion. 

How can self-compassion improve wellbeing? 

One of the most consistent findings in the research is that people who are more self-compassionate tend to be less anxious and less depressed. That’s a strong motivator to give it a try! Self-compassion enhances wellbeing by fulfilling a basic need of all mammals, which is to receive nurturance and care. Yes, we do need it from others, but given that this is not always possible, providing it for ourselves is surely valuable. It is suggested that showing compassion releases the “love hormone”, oxytocin, which promotes feelings of closeness and contentment. 

Self-compassion is thought to assist us to balance our emotions. It does this by activating the Sooth System – which has a calming influence on the Threat System and the Drive System. (Self-criticism actually maintains the Threat System such that our pain and fear is prolonged.) 

Barriers to self-compassion

Perhaps all this talk of self-compassion evokes some worry that you may end up lazy and self-indulgent? This is the number one reason people give for not being compassionate towards themselves. Self-compassion can indeed appear to just be self-pity. This concern is understandable but unfounded! Research shows that self-compassion enhances motivation and performance, and it promotes a focus on personal growth. In short, love is a more powerful motivator than fear. 

Getting started

I have found that a useful and achievable point at which to start building your self-compassion is to employ a simple phrase: It is hard to feel this way. 

In that moment when you realise you are felling physical pain, or emotional distress, or worry, stop for just a few seconds and say to yourself, “It is hard to feel this way.” In this phrase you are noticing your suffering, you are acknowledging that it is not easy and not what you would probably choose, and you are not being judgmental of your situation or you reaction. It is what it is, and at that moment, it is hard. 

Another useful skill in developing self-compassion is mindfulness. I look forward to bringing you information about mindfulness next month!

An edited version of this article was published in Hello Neighbours magazine.