What is self-compassion and why is it important?

Self-Compassion Theory is a relatively new theory and therapeutic framework in the mental health field. It was introduced primarily by Dr. Kristin Neff Ph.D.
The theory is defined by her as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.” In other words, treating ourselves with kindness when encountering hardships as opposed to ignoring the pain or criticizing ourselves over and over again.

This theory is usually broken down into three main components:

Self-kindness vs. self-judgement - being kind and understanding towards yourself because you are aware and have accepted that you are imperfect and will make mistakes and that is okay and normal, as opposed to pursuing perfection and then berating yourself for not achieving it. The idea is to be more realistic about yourself and your expectations to decrease stress levels, negative self-talk and criticism.

Common Humanity vs. isolation - emphasizing that suffering and imperfection is part of the human experience and is universal. Knowing this helps you to not isolate yourself, thinking that you’re the only one who fails or suffers. Feeling alone in your suffering often increases it.

Mindfulness vs. over-identification - this entails being aware of your negative thoughts, pain, and feelings without becoming swept up in them. This means you allow yourself to feel what you feel without believing that these feelings are your identity while continuously putting things in perspective and knowing that you are not your negative thoughts, feelings, or failures.

Dr. Neff herself said in 2019: “Self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings… With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”

Dr. Neff has been doing research to see the benefits of having self-compassion as the basis of caring for one’s mental health, and the research has shown that there are several benefits to practicing self-compassion. People who practice self-compassion have overall found a more intrinsic motivation in life, in other words they do things because they want to, as opposed to trying to impress themselves or others in their life. Self-compassionate people are also more likely to take responsibility for mistakes and handle making mistakes better emotionally.

Something important to note is that self-compassion is quite different than self-esteem. Self-esteem is how positively you evaluate yourself, while self-compassion is treating yourself with kindness while being aware of the reality of the situation.

Dr. Neff’s studies suggest that people using exercises to increase self-esteem were more likely to feel badly about themselves when remembering negative experiences, mistakes, or failures. People using self-compassion had less negative emotional responses when remembering negative experiences, mistakes, or failures.

Her studies have shown that while learning self-esteem has positive outcomes when you succeed or are doing well, while self-compassionate people treat themselves with kindness whether they are experiencing a positive or difficult time in life.
Her research suggests higher levels of self-compassion are linked to increased feelings of happiness, optimism, curiosity, emotional resilience, wisdom, personal initiative, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination, and fear of failure.

How do I practice self-compassion?

Let yourself make mistakes: try new things and passions knowing that you will make mistakes. Whether that’s taking up a new hobby, trying a new job, going back to school, or learning a new language. Embrace the fact that when we try new things (and even things we do all the time) we make mistakes and that’s a universal part of the human experience.

Care for yourself as you would treat others: whenever you’re dealing with a negative feeling, or a failure, give yourself the same amount of compassion as you would give a friend. You would probably give them a hug or a pat on the shoulder and use kind and forgiving language. You can do this with yourself as well.

Becoming More Self-Aware: One way to do this is using releasing statements, when you have a negative thought about yourself switch it around and say something that acknowledges you what you are dealing with and letting it go, such as “It is okay that I felt upset”. Another thing you can do is instead of ignoring or denying your flaws you can accept these perceived imperfections and positive qualities. Everyone has positive and negative parts of themselves and that is okay.

(Re)Gaining Perspective: Learn how to let go of the need for outside validation. A lot of the time our negative thoughts about ourselves stem from social pressures, like beauty standards, or parental expectations. It’s important not to tie your worth to outside influences. Another important aspect of gaining perspective is to reach out to others. This way we can put our feelings in perspective with the outside world and see that we are not alone in our suffering and see the “bigger picture". In doing so you also build your social support system which is very important for your mental wellbeing.

When we practice self-compassion, we learn to be kind to ourselves regardless of what is going on in our life at the time. We learn that we can be kind to ourselves regardless of what others think and regardless of our successes or failures. We learn how to connect with the world outside of ourselves and feel connected to others not only in our achievements, but also our failures. We begin to see that failure, negative thoughts and emotions are a part of being human and we can learn to stop isolating ourselves and talking down to ourselves, while being aware of our personal responsibility for mistakes and short comings.

Author: Kellen Olivia Kiisler

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