According to ‘The Sunday Times’ Style magazine “2018 is going to be The year of Self-Care”. [1] I wonder what Kristen Neff will be thinking about her decade of research finally having its moment in the UK?

The Times article is generic and accessible and offers fast and easy “Self-care in under 5 minutes” options.  One of which is to “Take a quick shower, sprinkle some uplifting peppermint oil onto the shower floor so that the scent surrounds you” I can hear my eminently practical Mom saying “If you put oil on the shower floor you’ll slip and break your neck, there’s nothing very ‘wellbeing’ about a broken neck” and she’d be right.

Whilst self-care and looking after ourselves generally is important, advice on this often transpires into little more than an opportunity for publications to sell the latest face, hand or body cream and we know that the feel good effects of this type of purchase don’t last very long at all, sometimes not even until we get it home. So what can we do support our psychological health?

Self-compassion and psychological health

Self-compassion is simply compassion, directed inwards.

Compassion is what we feel when we notice that something isn’t right in others, we often have a desire to help them, we might offer understanding and kindness. But how often do we do this for ourselves? The research shows that for many people it’s not very often, and it’s even less often if you had a difficult childhood or suffer with anxiety or depression. [2]

Many of us are characteristically stoic, strong and silent often pushing through difficulties to ‘get the job done’ Here’s the bottom line, doing that consistently isn’t good for you. In fact, its positively bad for your psychological health. [3] It might even lead to “ineffective coping strategies such as substance misuse, binge eating or social withdrawal”. [4]

Recognising when self-compassion would be helpful

Recognising when to use self-compassion is key. It’s often the time when you can hear that ‘inner critic’ berating you and being unkind or even cruel;

  • “You’re hopeless, you’ve done it again!
  • ”You’ll never be able to …(Fill in your own ‘area for development’ here!)
  • “You’re SO stupid”

Your internal dialogue can be an inner expression of pain and the time that you hear yourself being self-critical is the very moment that you need to stop and practice self-compassion.

Neff’s work shows us that it’s useful to think of the three components of self-compassion

  1. Self-Compassion and Loving (Kindness),
  2. Connectedness (Common Humanity)
  3. Presence (Mindfulness).

When we hold our pain in “loving connected presence,” we simultaneously generate positive emotions while lessening our negative emotions through self- soothing.

How do you begin to be self-compassionate?

There are a number of ways to practice self-compassion. Short term we can self-comfort, putting our hand on our heart in difficult moments, we can complete an exercise in self compassionate letter writing where we write a paragraph to ourselves as we might to a friend, and long term Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction has been shown to help.

But how do we change our thinking in the moment? How do we alter that negative self-talk? Neff suggests something like this (you can of course change the words to suits your own style and preferences)

  1. This is a really difficult time for me right now (Kindness)
  2. Lots of other people are feeling like this too (Common humanity – we’re not on our own)
  3. How can I care for and comfort myself best in this moment? What do I need right now? (mindfully addressing your own needs as you might for others)

It can also be helpful at this point to contextualise your pain and suffering, you can do this easily by switching on the news and starting to make comparisons to your own life. The plight of the Syrian children, people without healthcare options, life in North Korea. Downward comparisons can really help us to contextualise our own pain and suffering and put it in the context of the bigger picture

It’s important to note that Neff’s work is clear that Self-Compassion is not the same as self-esteem. “Self-compassion is not based on positive judgments or evaluations—it is a way of relating to ourselves. it only requires that we acknowledge our limitations with kindness, rather than changing our self-evaluations from negative to positive. We have self-compassion because we are human beings, not because we are special or above average. We don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about ourselves. Self-compassion also offers more emotional stability than self-esteem because it is always available—in good times and bad”. [5]

If you’d like to know how self-compassionate you currently are Neff has developed a Self-Compassion Scale so that you can measure your own levels and address any areas that you choose to. The scales are available on her website [6]

Treating yourself with Self-Compassion plays a very important role in our psychological health, when we can recognize our own pain and suffering and respond to it with kindness we are better able to cope with life’s struggles. Treating ourselves as we would treat our best friends takes practice but makes great sense, unlike sprinkling oil on a shower floor.


[1] The Sunday Times Style magazine. Wellbeing section. 31.12.17

[2] Blatt 1995

[3] Neff K.D. and Germer C. 2017 Self Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. Oxford handbook of compassion science. Oxford University Press.

[4] Holahan and Moos 1987

[5] Neff K.D. and Germer C. 2017 Self Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. Oxford handbook of compassion science. Oxford University Press





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