What is Self-Compassion?
"Be kind to yourself."
We can hear this quite a lot, but what does it actually mean? Being kind to ourselves relates to the act of self-compassion. Before we think about self-compassion, let’s focus our attention to compassion. Compassion is the process of being aware of suffering in others and the drive to do something about that in order to sooth or prevent it. The word compassion may hold different connotations for us.
Different definitions we give to compassion
It could be that we think of kindness, acceptance, warmth, understanding, and being non-judgemental. These are all really positive connotations that encourage the experience of positive emotions.
However, it could be that for you compassion has more negative connotations such as weakness, guilt, pity, being selfish or having a lack of drive, and in turn this is more likely to encourage the experience of negative emotions.
So, just thinking about the word compassion can bring things up for us; positive or negative.
The three elements of self-compassion
Self-compassion relates to applying the same principles as compassion, but to ourselves; the act of recognising when we are suffering, and doing something to relieve the suffering. It is important to note that self-compassion involves having awareness and understanding of our shortcomings, but not judging or criticising ourselves for them. Kristin Neff suggests that there are three elements to self-compassion:
Why is self-compassion a challenge?
Firstly, as we have seen, the process of self-compassion is more complex than we may initially think. It requires some level of awareness, introspection, acceptance, and the motivation to take action. We also have to think about our previous experiences, and issues like culture, religious beliefs, parenting styles, thinking about what we have biologically inherited (which is not our fault), and how this shapes our ability to be compassionate with ourselves. Self-compassion is something that needs attention and nurturance; it is not something that will appear by just thinking we are being kind to ourselves by doing something nice for ourselves.
From a Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) perspective, there are two elements which it aims to develop. The first is: understanding, approaching and engaging with suffering and distress. This requires courage. It is not an easy thing to do, and it can be a challenge to tolerate the distress when the easier thing might be to avoid paying attention to it. The second is the drive and motivation to relieve the suffering, address the cause and prevent it from happening in the future. This takes dedication and wisdom. It requires attention, effort and commitment. These are elements in which we may need help or support, and that is ok.
Self-compassion is complex.
It's in our biology
Let’s think from an evolutionary psychology perspective. Our brains are complex. Paul Gilbert talks about the role of three systems that we have: the threat, drive and soothing systems. Each of these has an important function in managing our emotions; however adverse, early experiences can create an imbalance in these systems causing us to experience unwanted thoughts and emotions, like shame, being sensitive to criticism, self-criticism, and anxiety, to name a few.
The threat system
The threat system is all about identifying threats and keeping us safe. Due to evolution we can spot threats quickly, and this system is about motivating us to take action. It does this by triggering powerful emotions like fear or anxiety; this in turn activates our flight/fight/freeze response (escape or avoid/attack/submission). The freeze response can create feelings of shame. It is the most powerful system as its primary concern is our survival. Therefore this has the consequence of taking up a lot of mental energy, and if this system is constantly running we may hold beliefs about the world being scary and dangerous which can make us feel anxious and hyper-vigilant to potential threats. When it is in balance with the drive and soothing system it can help with seeing potential threats, but without disupting our lives and sabotaging our goals.
The drive system
The next system is the drive system which is the part that motivates us to get our needs met. It alerts to opportunities and makes us work towards meeting our goals. On a basic level this could be food, safety or comfort, and on a higher level, achievement and success (think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). The important brain chemical in this system is dopamine, which can also be known as the ‘reward chemical’ – it makes us feel good. Imagine the experience of achieving something we want; the rush or ‘high’ we get with that. This is the drive system at work.
The soothing system
So, unlike the threat and drive systems, the soothing system is all about calmness, contentment and peacefulness. This works when there are no threats or goals to be met. This system uses different chemicals – oxytocin and endorphins. It allows us to self-sooth and sooth others. It is associated with care, acceptance, kindness, warmth and support. These elements can defuse the more negative experiences of the threat and drive systems. The soothing system can be underused or blocked especially for individuals who have experienced trauma, stressful incidents, or negative childhood events. Some people may even associate the feeling of closeness with threat. Also if this system is underused it can create the experience of shame and self-criticism, leading to stress and the triggering of stress-hormones, hostility and impairing interactions with others.
Restoring the balance
So, if we think solely from this biological perspective, self-compassion is hard because we may have drive and threat systems that are overused, and a soothing system that is underused because of our previous experiences. These systems are activated as a part of our biology. This is not our fault, however we can work to restore the balance between these systems in order to develop skills to self-sooth and feel compassion towards ourselves.
What would you say to a friend?
Some of us may find it easier to be compassionate to other people who are experiencing a tough time or having a negative experience. Therefore, it can be useful to think about what we would say to a friend who is experiencing suffering. There may be something about this that is easier than showing ourselves compassion.
“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we'd give to a good friend.” (Kristin Neff)
Thinking about this could be the first step in reflecting on using self-compassionate, what experiences have influences this, and the messages we can give ourselves.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Neff, K. (2015). Self Compassion. Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. Yellow Kite Books: London.
Written by Helena Virk, M.Sc.
Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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