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Self-compassion: What it is and What it is not

Self-compassion is an emotionally positive self-attitude that should protect against the negative consequences of self-judgment, isolation, and rumination (Neff, 2003).

The concept of self-compassion derives from Eastern philosophical thoughts and is a relatively new concept for Western psychology.

Studies suggest that self-compassion is strongly related to psychological well-being. People with higher levels of self-compassion report lower levels of depression, anxiety, neurotic perfectionism, rumination, and thought suppression than those lacking the trait. Self-compassionate people also report more happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and intrinsic motivation, as well as greater levels of emotional intelligence, coping skills, wisdom, and resilience than those who harshly judge themselves.

According to Dr. Kristin Neff of University of Texas, self-compassion consists of three main elements: (a) self-kindness (versus self-judgement), (b) common humanity (versus isolation), and (c) mindfulness (versus over-identification).

(a) self-kindness; being kind and understanding toward oneself in instance of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical

(b) common humanity (sense of inter-connectedness with others): recognition of the shred human experience, perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, acknowledgement that suffering, failure and inadequacies are part of human condition, sense of inter-connectedness with others

(c) mindfulness: holding painful thoughts and feelings without suppressing difficult emotions nor ruminating on them in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them

What self-compassion is not

Self-compassion is not self-esteem.

Though self-compassion may involve many psychological benefits that self-esteem yields, some research indicates that self-compassion differs from self-esteem in significant ways.

  • Self-esteem is built by judgements and comparisons as it is stems from evaluation of self-worth and self-performance (how good I am? Am I congruent with ideal standards?). According to Neff, self-compassion is associated with less anxiety and self-consciousness than self-esteem when considering personal self-compassion is linked with more stable and less contingent feelings of self-worth.

  • Self-esteem is fluctuated by other’s evaluation of the self, by which one determines how much one like the self (how much they approved of me?).

  • Self-esteem involves social comparison and one is evaluated in relation to the performance of others. (Am I better than others?)

Self-esteem involves feeling special and above average, and self-esteem leads us to develop what’s known as a “self-enhancement bias,” which refers to the tendency to think of ourselves as superior to others on various dimensions.

Some studies indicate that unconscious attempts to protect or enhance self-esteem may also cause distortions in self-knowledge and make it difficult to identify areas in which

change or growth is needed. In addition, the desire for high self-esteem may result in willingness to see the worst in others as a means of rating the self more favorably in comparison.

Dr. Neff mentions in her study that “self-compassion is associated with less anxiety and self-consciousness than self-esteem when considering personal self-compassion is linked with more stable and less contingent feelings of self-worth. Self-compassion is associated with less social comparison, public self-consciousness, anger, self-righteousness, and ego-defensiveness when receiving unflattering personal feedback than self-esteem, as well as taking more personal responsibility for past misdeeds.

Moreover, while trait self-esteem evidences a substantial overlap with narcissism, self-compassion has not been found to be associated with Narcissism. Thus, self-compassion appears to entail many of the benefits of high self-esteem with fewer of the drawbacks associated with self-esteem pursuit.”

Self-compassion is not for wimps and does not lead to passivity.

Self-compassion should not imply passivity or inaction in observing weakness in the self if feeling of self-compassion is genuine. When one is compassionate to oneself, one does not harshly criticize the self for failing to meet ideal standards, but it does not mean that one’s failing kept unnoticed or uncorrected.

In fact, it is the lack of self-compassion that will be very likely to lead to passivity. When one judges the self harshly for its failings, the protective functions of the ego often act out to screen inadequacies. Lack of self-awareness prevents one from challenging the area in which change and improvement is necessary.

By giving compassion to oneself, however, one provides the emotional safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation, allowing the individual to more accurately perceive and change and improve maladaptive patterns of thought, feeling and behavior.

Self-compassion is not self-pity.

Self-pity is a state of mind or emotional response of a person believing to be a victim and ignoring their interconnections with others, and instead feels that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering.

Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerates the extent of personal suffering.

This process can be termed ‘‘over-identification,’’ in that individuals become so immersed in their current emotional reactions. Because self-pity is so self-absorbing in subjective reactions that one cannot step back from the situation adopting a more objective perspective.

On the other hand, being the self-compassionate sees things exactly as they are. This means acknowledging they are suffering, while acknowledging others are also suffering or are experiencing even greater suffering and struggle.

Self-compassion requires that individuals do not avoid or repress their painful feelings, so that they are able to acknowledge and feel compassion for their experience adopting more objective perspective and that individuals do not over-identify with their emotions, so that there is ‘‘mental space’’ in which to extend oneself kindness and recognize the broader human context of one’s experience.

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence.

Self-compassion involves your health and well-being. Being compassionate to oneself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term.

Giving yourself health and lasting happiness doesn’t mean giving yourself instant-gratification but often involves a certain amount of displeasure . Self-indulgence is about getting anything and everything you want without thoughts of well-being.

Self-indulgence numbs one and denies one’s pain by avoiding facing difficult truths about yourself.

On the contrary, self-compassion is about becoming aware of and sitting with your pain and transforming it to powerful motivating force for growth and change.

Do you find it easy to be compassionate to others but find it much harder to be compassionate to yourself?

You are not the only one. For many of us, self-criticism is just the way we talk to ourselves. Self-criticism taps into the threat/defense response.

This system is hard-wired and the responses alerted our ancestors to possible dangers. We are built to avoid danger and sustain our lives; the system is designed to protect us and keep us safe.

Therefore, when you view yourself as the problem, the reptilian brain (the oldest part of the brain) kicks in and attacks yourself, and the self-critical self-talk starts. So, self-criticism comes from a desire to keep ourselves safe or feel safe. Self-criticism allowed you to stay connected to critical caregivers. Self-criticism provides illusion of control. We try to motivate ourselves by being self-critical.

We do all these in attempt of defending ourselves from threat. However, when we are self-critical, the opposite actually happens. According to Ruth Baer, Ph.D, self-criticism drains our energy and confidence and paralyzes progress. And people who criticize themselves harshly are more likely to become depressed, anxious and lonely.

Self-compassion moves you from the reptilian brain to the mammalian care giving system of tending/befriending. Mammal’s young are designed to attach closely with the mother to stay safe.

Do you want to be more compassionate to yourself? Do you need help stopping being self-critical? We are here to help at Naya Clinics



Sam Nabil is the founder of Naya Clinics and is a Cincinnati therapist and a Cincinnati Marriage Counselor.

Sam offers therapy in Cincinnati and Cincinnati Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety.

Sam was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English

Naya Clinics is a top-rated Marriage Counseling, therapy and Life coaching practice.

Naya Clinics offers Marriage Counselors near me, individual therapy near me, and life coaching near me in various locations across the USA and the world.

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