Self-compassion: Definition and Three Elements of Self Compassion

Self-compassion involves being sincere and understanding of ourselves when we suffer, are rejected, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating (punishing) ourselves with self-criticism. When there is self-compassion we recognize that the human being is imperfect and thus, with all our defects, it will be inevitable to experience difficulties in life, so we must tend to be kind to ourselves when we face painful experiences, instead to get angry when life falls short of established ideals.

Self-compassion is a way of emotionally recharging our batteries. Rather than becoming drained by helping others, self-compassion allows us to fill up our internal reserves, so that we have more to give to those who need us. Kristin Neff

Having compassion for yourself or Self-compassion is really no different from having compassion for others. We can’t get always what we really want in life and this is the reality of life. Think about what it feels like to experience compassion:

First of all, to have compassion for others, you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore, for example, that homeless person on the street, you cannot feel compassion for how difficult their life experience must be.

Second, compassion involves feeling moved by the suffering of others so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means “to suffer with”). When this happens, you feel the warmth, care, and desire to help the person who is suffering in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding, kindness and sympathy to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them severely.

Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of the shared human experience (“There but for fortune go I”).

According to Kristin Neff:

Self Compassion
Image from Unsplash

Self-compassion also requires a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This balanced stance comes from the process of relating personal experiences to those of other people who are also suffering, putting our own situation in a broader perspective. It also stems from the willingness to view our negative thoughts and emotions frankly and clearly, so that they remain in living awareness. Mindfulness is a receptive, non-critical state of mind in which thoughts and feelings are observed as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.

We cannot overlook our pain and feel sympathy for it. At the same time, mindfulness requires that the state of mind has not been “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings so that we are trapped and swept away by negative reactivity. Self-compassion involves acting towards ourselves, in the same way, that we would treat others when we are having a difficult time when we fail or notice something that we do not like about ourselves.

Don’t ignore yourself!

“Instead of just ignoring the pain with a ‘poker face’, you allow yourself to say to yourself” this is really difficult right now, how can I comfort myself and take care of myself now? “I mean, instead of ignoring you or worse, judging and criticizing yourself for your shortcomings, self-pity means that you are going to be kind and understanding when faced with your personal mistakes.

You can try to change what allows you to be healthier and happier, but you do this because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable.” Christopher Germer

Perhaps the most important thing about having compassion for yourself is that you honor and accept your humanity. Things don’t always go your way. You will encounter frustrations, there will be losses, you will make mistakes, and you will run into your limitations and the fall of your ideals. This is our reality, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality rather than constantly battling it, the more capable you will be of feeling compassion for yourself and all your fellow human beings in life’s experience.

Finally, to understand what Self-compassion is, it is essential to know its three components: Mindfulness, Shared Humanity and Self-kindness. Likewise, inquiring about what is not self-compassion allows us to banish false beliefs, for example, differentiating self-compassion from self-esteem, since they confuse us about what compassion can really bring us towards ourselves.

Three elements of self compassion:

If compassion is what prompts us to want to alleviate the suffering of others, self-compassion consists in recognizing that pain in ourselves, not gloating over it but also reducing and understanding it. As the Zen master DokushO┬┤ Villalba explains in his book Mindfulness. Mindfulness-based on the Buddhist tradition, the three elements of self-compassion allow us to manage frustration from kindness, shared humanity and Mindfulness, with the latter expanding the perspective of our negative feelings and thoughts.

1. Kindness to yourself:

Self-compassion involves being loving and understanding with yourself when you are in a situation of suffering, or when you fail, or feel inadequate, instead of ignoring your own pain, or flagellating yourself through self-criticism. Kristin Neff says:

Self Compassion Kristin Neff
Image from Unsplash

Self-compassionate people recognize that they are imperfect, that they make mistakes, that they fail sometimes, and that difficult experiences are inevitable in life. So they tend to be kind to themselves when faced with painful experiences, rather than getting angry when life falls short of established ideals. You cannot always become or get what you want. When we fight against this reality, our pain and suffering increase in the form of stress, anxiety, frustration and self-criticism; and if we accept this reality with sympathy and kindness, a person goes through a greater emotional composure.

2. Shared humanity:

Frustration, which appears when things and oneself are not as one wants them to be, is usually accompanied by an irrational and intense feeling of isolation as if one were the only person who suffers or makes mistakes. However, all human beings suffer and make mistakes.

“To be human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion indicates that suffering and personal insufficiency are part of everyone’s life, i.e. something that happens to all of us is not something that happens only to me. Therefore, self-pity implies recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the experience of shared humanity.

Recognizing our essential inter-being will allow us to be less critical about our personal faults. After all, if we had total control over our behavior, how many people would consciously decide to have anger problems, addiction problems, social anxiety, eating disorders, etc.?

Many aspects of ourselves and the circumstances of our lives are not of our choice; rather, they come from innumerable factors over which we have very little control. Therefore, in acknowledging our essential interdependence, lifes’ failures and difficulties do not have to be taken personally but can be recognized and admitted without prejudice, with compassion and understanding.

3. Mindfulness:

Self-compassion requires a balanced approach to our negative thoughts and emotions. That is, our feelings should not be suppressed or exaggerated. This balanced stance arises when we relate our personal experiences to those of other people who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation in a broader perspective.

Thanks to the self-compassionate attitude, we can develop the will to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, keeping them in clear awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive state of mind in which thoughts and feelings are observed as they are, without trying to suppress them. It is the human psyche, that in pain we can’t feel compassion for ourselves. Mindfulness allows us not to over-identify with our negative thoughts and feelings so that we do not get caught or dragged by them.

Self-compassion vs Self-esteem:

Although it may seem that self-compassion is similar to self-esteem, in general, they are different in many ways. Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-respect and self-worth, or how much we like ourselves. While there is no question that low self-esteem is problematic and often leads to depression and a lack of motivation, trying to have high self-esteem can also backfire.

Nowadays, self-esteem is often based on how different we are from others, how much we stand out to face challenges of life, or how special we are for ourselves as well as for others: In our society, it is not okay to be normal, but we have to feel above average to be okay with ourselves. This means that attempts to raise self-esteem can lead to narcissistic, self-centered behaviors, or can lead us to look down on other people to make us feel better about ourselves.

We also tend to get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done something that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves. Moreover, self-esteem encourages us to ignore, distort, or hide personal weaknesses, so that we cannot see clearly and accurately. Finally, our self-esteem often depends on our success and failure, which means that our self-esteem fluctuates based on ever-changing circumstances.

In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluation. People feel compassion for themselves, because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess a particular set of characteristics (handsome, intelligent, etc.). This means that with self-compassion, we don’t have to feel superior to others to be okay with ourselves.

Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal faults can be kindly acknowledged and need not be hidden. In contrast, self-compassion does not depend on external conditions and situations, but is part of our behavior; especially when one is feeling very stressed and depressed. A study has shown that, as compared to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with emotional recovery, more precise self-concepts, and with more supportive relationship behaviors.

What Self-Compassion is not?

It is not a pity. When we feel sorry for ourselves, we get caught up in our own problems and forget that others also have problems similar to ours. We ignore the interconnections of problems with other people and believe that we are the only ones who are suffering. Grief and pity highlight that there are egocentric feelings of separation from others, which exaggerate the magnitude of personal suffering.

However, self-compassion allows one to see experiences related to “self and other” without such feelings of isolation and disconnection. Likewise, individuals who feel sorry for themselves often get carried away and become increasingly involved in their own emotional drama: They cannot step back and adopt a more balanced and objective point of view.

In contrast to this vision, we find self-compassion: by adopting a more compassionate perspective towards oneself, the necessary “mental space” is provided to recognize the broad human context of one’s own experience and to put such experiences in a broader perspective.

“Yes, it is very difficult what I am going through at the moment, but there are many other people who are going through much greater suffering. Perhaps, it is not worth being so upset about”.

It is not self-indulgence. Self-compassion is also very different from self-indulgence. Many people say that they resist being self-pitying because they are afraid of being carried away by any impulse.

“Since I’m stressed today, to be nice to myself I’m going to watch TV all day and eat a kilo of ice cream.” This, however, is self-indulgence, not self-pity.

Remember that being compassionate to yourself indicates that you want to be happy and healthy. In many cases, when we give ourselves pleasure, we can end up damaging our well-being (for example: taking drugs, overeating, being a television addict). While giving ourselves lasting health and happiness often implies a certain degree of discontent (for example, quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).

People are often very hard on themselves when they realize that they want to change something because they think they might become ashamed of themselves (self-flogging approach).

However, this approach often backfires if one cannot cope with the most difficult truths about himself because he is too afraid of coming to hate himself if he does. Therefore, weaknesses can remain hidden in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censorship.

On the contrary, mindfulness intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the security necessary to see the “self” clearly and without fear of self-condemnation. Because they think they might become ashamed of themselves (self-flogging approach).

However, this approach often backfires if one cannot cope with the most difficult truths about himself because he is too afraid of coming to hate himself if he does. Therefore, weaknesses can remain unacknowledged in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censorship.

On the contrary, mindfulness intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the security necessary to see the “self” clearly and without fear of self-condemnation. Because they think they might become ashamed of themselves (self-flogging approach).

However, this approach often backfires if one cannot cope with the most difficult truths about himself because he is too afraid of coming to hate himself if he does. Therefore, weaknesses can remain hidden (unacknowledged) in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censorship.

On the contrary, mindfulness intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the security necessary to see the “self” clearly and without fear of self-condemnation.

This approach often backfires if you can’t cope with the most difficult truths about yourself because you are too afraid of coming to hate yourself if you do. Therefore, weaknesses can remain hidden (unacknowledged) in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censorship.

On the contrary, mindfulness intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the security necessary to see the “self” clearly and without fear of self-condemnation.

This approach often backfires if one cannot cope with the most difficult truths about oneself because one is too afraid of hating oneself if one does. Therefore, weaknesses can remain hidden (unacknowledged) in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censorship.

In contrast, mindfulness intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety necessary to see “self” clearly and without fear of self-condemnation.

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Rising Star

Hi, I am passionate to write and help build a satisfying life. I am an expert in Research, Professional Blogger, Motivational speaker and a WordPress Developer.

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4 Responses

  1. CattleCapers says:

    I finally got wise and realized that self condemnation was never helpful. It just made me feel less motivated and tired.

  2. Wonderful post on “Self-compassion”. I like one point ” Suffering and personal inadequacy ” is common in everyone’s life.

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