Self-Compassion: Why It Works and How To Cultivate More of It

emotional life self-compassion Nov 01, 2018

As children, the majority of us are taught, directly or indirectly, that self-judgment and self-criticism work to our advantage by enhancing our inner motivation and drive to be better.


Unfortunately we’ve got it all wrong. Self-judgment and self-criticism, actions which operate through fear of failure, perfectionism, and not feeling good enough, actually leave us feeling helpless, distracted, unmotivated, and ill-prepared to handle the challenges of the world around us.


Let me suggest another approach.




Self-compassion – the ability to feel, be with, and understand our own emotional experience without judgment and criticism – it turns out, is one of most important predictors of satisfaction in life. Here are three big life changes you can expect when you turn self-compassion into a daily habit.


Your motivation will soar. The common belief that self-compassion leads to self-indulgence, laziness, and lack of motivation is a myth. In actuality, being self-compassionate strengthens motivation and helps you to see yourself as more competent 1,2.


Your emotional well-being will get a boost. Self-compassionate people, the scientific literature reveals, have an overall greater sense of well-being 3. Compared to those who lack self-compassion, self-compassionate people have greater emotional resilience and stability 4 and less perceived stress and negative emotion 5. Being self-compassionate also helps you to have a healthy, adaptive response to life’s challenges. As you become more self-compassionate, you are more likely to use emotion- than avoidance- focused coping 1, tending to (rather than denying) your emotional experience. And when it comes to mental health, the more self-compassionate you are, the less likely you are to experience depressive symptoms, anxiety and stress 6.


Your relationships will improve dramatically. According to science, if you want to enhance your relationships, practice self-compassion. Those ‘positive relationship behaviors’ (like being authentic, caring, supportive, and willing to compromise) that scientists say lead to healthy conflict resolution – you’re far more likely to have them if you are self-compassionate 7,8. It turns out that learning to “swipe right” on yourself before you swipe right on others immensely benefits your relationships. And it could very well be the practice that keeps you happily married rather than divorced 9.


Self-compassion strengthens motivation, builds emotional well-being, and helps relationships. You can learn to be better at it. Here are five simple steps you can take to become more self-compassionate and self-loving right now.


Tend to the way you are feeling. Stop everything you are doing, prioritize yourself, and let yourself feel. Oftentimes we experience events and associated feelings that beg for self-compassion, yet we gloss over them and continue on with life just as is. These feelings, however, are your heart and soul speaking to you, letting you know something doesn’t feel good. Feelings are messengers and just like the mail that appears on your doorstep or the instant message that pops up on your phone, need to be opened and read. Let yourself know that it is okay to feel, that feelings need not be suppressed, and ask yourself ‘How am I really feeling right now?’ As you do, let the answer arise in whatever way it does, whether a verbal expression (eg a grunt or vocalization of “I’m sad”), a physical action (eg stomping your feet on the ground in frustration), a physical sensation (eg a tear dripping down your cheek), or simply a knowing.


Separate yourself from the critical voice in your head. Notice the unkind words that you automatically and unconsciously use to refer to yourself and acknowledge that this habit was formed through your interactions with other people through childhood and adolescence. Understanding that every negative remark your mind has made about you in the past was simply conditioned (ie internalized by you as a child from the often critical voices of the adults around you) and therefore unmerited can give you the tools to turn self-criticism into self-appreciation. Begin by separating the critical voice from who you really are. Scientific studies suggest that it may help even to refer to yourself using third (“you”, “she”, “he”, or your first name) rather than first (“I”, “me”, or “my”) person pronouns 10,11. Recognize that the unkind words you silently or quietly speak to yourself are a function of what you learned while growing up; they are not you. You deserve to be spoken to with care, kindness, and support.


Tune into your heart. As long as you are operating from the thinking mind, the feelings and intuition that live in your heart and soul will be clouded. Notice and appreciate the ingrained desire you have to approach situations with logic and reason and choose, for just a moment, to leave rationality aside. You can always come back to it later. Know that your intellect is bound by what you do and do not know, by what you have and have not yet experienced, and all the fears that come along with it. Your heart has no boundaries; it only knows love. So just for now, put your hand on your heart and tune into the wisdom that lives there. Once the wisdom of your heart reveals itself to you, act on it to truly and fully be good to yourself.


Stop judging yourself negatively. Once and for all. Do you have imperfections? Sure. Do we all have imperfections? Sure. Are you and everyone else on the planet all nevertheless worthy, wonderful, and deserving of love? Absolutely. The next time you catch your mind saying “i’m not good enough”, “i’m not important”, “i’m a failure”, ‘i’m unlovable” or whatever the equivalent happens to be for you in that moment, question it, challenge it, and change it. Ask yourself “Is this really true?” and “Is there evidence in my life that contradicts this?” to get your mind out of the habit of accepting each thought as absolute truth. It is in recognizing your imperfection as perfection that self-compassion arises.


Befriend yourself. Be your own friend, stop being hard on yourself, and instead build a voice of self-kindness. When your friend is hurting and something in life leads them to feel sad, angry, or frustrated, what do you do? What do you say? What do you make sure not to do or not to say? Learn to treat yourself as you would a friend. It might feel silly, but thinking and relating to yourself as your own friend reliably builds self-compassion. If this feels difficult at first or you just don’t know where to begin, ask yourself this: ‘If I really loved myself, what would I do for myself in this very moment?’ Then, and most importantly, give yourself what you need. Call a friend and talk for hours, take a walk in the park, lay your head on the pillow and cry, eat your favorite sweet treat. Whatever it is, do it knowing that it isn’t selfish and it isn’t self-indulgent. It is, however, extremely beneficial and even necessary if you are to live a life of joy.


The fact of the matter is: You can never be too good to yourself. The most important relationship in this life is the one you have with yourself. And it’s time we all recognized that.




1. Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y.-P. & Dejitterat, K. Self-compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure. Self Identity 4, 263–287 (2005).


2. Neff, K. Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self Identity 2, 85–101 (2003).


3. Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O. & Garbade, S. The Relationship Between Self-Compassion and Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis. Appl. Psychol. Health Well Being 7, 340–364 (2015).


4. Neff, K. D. Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Soc. Personal. Psychol. Compass 5, 1–12 (2011).


5. Bluth, K. & Blanton, P. W. The influence of self-compassion on emotional well-being among early and older adolescent males and females. J. Posit. Psychol. 10, 219–230 (2015).


6. MacBeth, A. & Gumley, A. Exploring compassion: a meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 32, 545–552 (2012).


7. Yarnell, L. M. & Neff, K. D. Self-compassion, Interpersonal Conflict Resolutions, and Well-being. Self Identity 12, 146–159 (2013).


8. Neff, K. D. & Beretvas, S. N. The Role of Self-compassion in Romantic Relationships. Self Identity 12, 78–98 (2013).


9. Baker, L. R. & McNulty, J. K. Self-compassion and relationship maintenance: the moderating roles of conscientiousness and gender. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 100, 853–873 (2011).


10. Moser, J. S. et al. Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Sci. Rep. 7, 4519 (2017).


11. Kross, E. et al. Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: how you do it matters. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 106, 304–324 (2014).


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