Imagine that a good friend came to you and shared their struggles. They just got the news that one of their close family members is ill, and at the same time, they’re working through marital issues with their spouse. They’re also overworked in their job and can’t seem to find a moment to themselves. Today, when they met you, they were late and forgot to bring their wallet. They apologized profusely and started to beat themselves up, calling themselves useless, a terrible adult. How would you respond? Chances are, it won’t be that difficult for you to extend some compassion. After all, they are going through a lot.
Now imagine you’re the person going through what your friend is experiencing. Do you think you can extend the same kind of compassion to yourself? If you’re like most people, you’ll probably find this a lot harder.
How self-compassion differs from self-esteem
Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and considered one of the world’s leading experts in self-compassion. She defines self-compassion as “treating ourselves kindly when we feel inadequate . . . with kindness and concern, like we would treat a friend.” In contrast, Neff says self-esteem “is a judgment on self-worth. Self-esteem has some problems because when we fail or make a mistake, we feel badly about ourselves.”
Psychologist Rami Nijjar says that self-esteem centers on disconnecting with others because it’s rooted in the idea that you’re better than everyone around you. Self-compassion, on the other hand, emphasizes connection with others, based on a shared experience of suffering and struggle that we all face.
Society has focused on self-esteem
It sounds like a relatively simple concept, yet for many of us, being kind to ourselves—particularly when we experience failure—can seem downright impossible. According to Nijjar, one of the reasons for this is because society has conditioned us to focus on self-esteem, rather than self-compassion. “We’ve burnt ourselves out in becoming more goal-driven and individualistic,” says Nijjar, which is what focusing on self-esteem tends to encourage. “I think with self-esteem, we got into a way of living where we constantly push ourselves outside of our comfort zones.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Nijjar, but this message can push many of us to go after things that don’t always sit well with us.
It might sound counterintuitive to think that self-compassion would make us stronger emotionally, but according to Nijjar and Neff, this is exactly what research has shown. Neff says that many people worry that self-compassion will make them lazy and complacent, but in fact, it can actually increase motivation. Think about the way that we motivate children, she says. “As a culture, we thought that to get children to do well, we have to use harsh corporal punishment. Now we know through the research that if we use encouragement . . . they have more likelihood of succeeding. If we threaten them, they have fear of failure and get performance anxiety, which undermines their ability to achieve.”
Says Nijjar, “When people connect to what’s human about them and are able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, they’re able to take care of their health better, they’re able to motivate themselves more long-term.”
Self-compassion can be painful
Another reason that many people struggle to practice self-compassion, according to Nijjar, is that it can force you to confront memories and events that you might find painful. “Self-compassion is all about how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others. When we practice self-compassion, it reminds us of the times when we weren’t compassionate to ourselves or reminds us of when others aren’t compassionate to us.”
This can be especially difficult, says Nijjar, for people who grew up in households where their parents didn’t practice compassion, either to themselves or the people around them. “As humans, we learn about ourselves through relationships. If we’re in families where our parents were struggling to cope, whether that’s through mental illness, addiction, or marginalization, they can project their fears and insecurities to those closest to them.”
According to Nijjar, as a child, you tend to internalize the level of stress and negativity—or positivity—that comes from those around you. “If you come from an environment where your parents are struggling with self-compassion, you’re more likely to have negative beliefs around your self-worth. When you start practicing self-compassion, you can really come face to face with those aspects of your experience,” says Nijjar.
Misconceptions about self-compassion
Nijjar also believes that there are also many misconceptions that prevent people from practicing self-compassion. In addition to the belief that being kind toward yourself can lead to laziness, Nijjar says that there’s often a lot of shame associated with self-care and practicing self-compassion. People often ask themselves, “Am I being self-indulgent? Am I engaging in self-pity?”
The research says otherwise. Because self-compassion helps us with how we internalize stress in the world, we tend to be better equipped to deal with challenging situations, says Nijjar. This gives us more emotional energy to have better relationships with others. In an article for Greater Good Magazine, Neff challenged the idea that self-compassion is a “selfish” act. “Most people find that when they’re absorbed in self-judgment, they actually have little bandwidth left over to think about anything other than their inadequate, worthless selves,” she wrote. “When we can be kind and nurturing to ourselves, however, many of our emotional needs are met, leaving us in a better position to focus on others.”
On practicing more self-compassion
Given the benefits that self-compassion can bring to our lives, how can we learn to cultivate it? Nijjar believes that this is where group therapy can be helpful. Nijjar herself runs an eight-week mindful self-compassion course, and she encourages most of her clients to take part early on in the therapy process. “The group is really a container, it’s a safe space, and very early in the group we talk about how scary self-compassion is and the resistance that comes up through practicing it.” It’s especially helpful, she says, “for those who find it really hard to go into therapy and sit face to face with someone, where that sense of shame is overwhelming.”
Melissa Dahl, journalist and author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, suggested asking yourself three questions when practicing self-compassion brings up a negative memory. First, think about how many people have experienced what you just experienced. Second, how would you respond if a friend was the one experiencing what you remembered, and they came to you to talk about it? Third, how would a neutral observer view the situation that is causing you to beat yourself up?
When you force yourself to think about these things, you realize that you’re not the only one who makes mistakes and encounters negative experiences. As a result, you’re less likely to ruminate on it and attach those events to your sense of self-worth. As Dahl previously wrote, “Maybe the most compassionate attitude you can take toward yourself is to stop obsessing over yourself.”