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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Kono

What is Self-Compassion and How to Practice it




From an evolutionary perspective, compassion is part of our social nature; it’s what allows us to see others’ suffering and have empathy and concern for them.  As humans, we evolved to become social beings, eventually forming groups that would become our family, our kin, our communities. We’re even hard-wired to experience compassion, possessing a “mammalian caregiving system evolutionarily designed to ensure caring for offspring [and] plays a pivotal role in the compassionate motivation to attend to and care for less fortunate members of a group” (Kucerova et al., 2023). 


We all know what it looks like when we feel compassion for others; it’s the feeling we get when we see a child that is hurt and crying after falling off a swing or when a loved one is hospitalized with cancer. 


But, what does it look like when we apply it to ourselves? Raise your hand if you know what self-compassion is (just kidding).


What is self-compassion?

To say that self-compassion involves redirecting the compassion you have for others towards yourself, while accurate, is almost an oversimplification of something that is deceivingly hard to do sometimes. 


According to Dr. Kristin Neff, the fearless leader of the self-compassion movement, there are three elements of self-compassion: 1) self-kindness vs self-judgment; 2) common humanity vs isolation; and 3) mindfulness vs overidentification. Here is brief description of each:


Self-kindness vs Self-judgment

Self-kindness involves a “warm and understanding” attitude towards the self. Rather than engaging in self-criticism, self-kindness includes a gentleness by which we approach our suffering.


Common humanity vs Isolation

In this context, self-compassion is about the acknowledgement that we, as humans, are all suffering and this suffering is not only a part of the human experience, but it connects us to others. 


Mindfulness vs Overidentification

Mindfulness involves observing our feelings and thoughts as they come. It’s about accepting them without judgment or attempting to change or get rid of them. In a state of mindfulness, we avoid being overtaken by our negative thoughts and feelings. The point is not to make ourselves feel better per se, but rather accept our thoughts and feelings as they are. 


So, now that you know what self-compassion is, what does it actually look like in action? 


Here are some examples of self-compassion:

  • After being overlooked for a promotion, instead of criticizing yourself, you acknowledge and validate your disappointment, and encourage yourself to keep going

  • Following a breakup, you make space for your pain and ask yourself, “How can I comfort myself in this moment?”

  • Instead of striving for perfection, you accept that - by human nature - we all  make mistakes and instead focus on doing the best you can


Self-care vs Self compassion

You might be wondering, “So, what is the difference between self-care and self-compassion?” Good question! They’re very similar and, in fact, some people use them interchangeably. Self-care doesn’t always involve self-compassion, but good self-care begins with self-compassion. For example, you’re not necessarily practicing self-compassion when you’re brushing your teeth in the morning or folding your laundry. Whereas self-care is how we take care of our mind, body and spirit, self-compassion is an attitude or how we regard ourselves. 


Where to Start

For those of you (I see you!) who might be saying to yourselves, “Gosh, I thought I was compassionate with myself, but now I’m not sure,” here are some tips on how to start practicing it:


  • Talk to yourself as you would a friend 

  • Ask yourself, “What do I need right now?”

  • Make space for your feelings

  • Respond to self-criticisms with curiosity by saying, “Ouch! I wonder where that came from?”

  • Remind yourself that you are human and that we all make mistakes


References

Compassion. Self. (n.d.). https://self-compassion.org/ 


Kucerova, B., Levit-Binnun, N., Gordon, I., & Golland, Y. (2023). From Oxytocin to Compassion: The Saliency of Distress. Biology, 12(2), 183. https://doi.org/10.3390/biology12020183


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