Defining Self Compassion
I have previously blogged about my ongoing journey towards a more compassionate self. Here I talk about some of the reasons that some people find it hard to be kind to themselves.
Self Compassion (SC) is defined by Neff (2011) as comprising three interrelated components:
Mindfulness: of our own suffering in a state of balanced awareness such that we don’t avoid difficult feelings but also don’t get caught up in ruminating on them.
Common Humanity: Recognising our suffering is part of being human and feeling connected rather than isolated through this experience.
Self Kindness: Treating ourselves with kindness and support when facing challenging situations, as we would a friend rather than using critical self judgement.
There is also a motivational and active component to SC concerned with wanting to alleviate our own suffering and acting in ways to do this.
Kind To Others, Kind To Self?
So, SC is being kind to ourselves in the same way we would be to a friend, or is it? Are these processes equivalent? Gilbert et al (2011) suggest not necessarily. Indeed the exact definition of compassion and how its relationship to SC is conceptualised varies between schools of thought. This might not seem important, but in terms of research and understanding the underlying mechanisms it is highly relevant. Some studies have in fact found that the relationship between compassion for others and SC can be variable (Lopez et al 2018, Neff & Pommier 2013). Gilbert et al (2011) suggest that having compassion for others, the ability to receive compassion from others and having compassion for ourselves may represent distinct, if related, processes which have been shaped by different evolutionary needs and are also differentially influenced by our individual attachment history. Clinical evidence and research studies clearly show that some people experience difficulty engaging with the different aspects of compassion. Gilbert et al (2011) found that fear of compassion for self was linked strongly to fear of receiving compassion from others in student and therapist populations and suggested this was indicative of a general difficulty dealing with affiliative emotions, related to insecure attachment style and high self criticism.
The definitional minefield around the research in to compassion and self compassion is further compounded by the fact that many practices such as Loving Kindness Meditation promote more than one of these processes, so that trying to elucidate the underlying mechanisms by examining training induction studies is also fraught with complexity.
In summary research is beginning to produce a consensus that compassion for self and others is good for our wellbeing in a number of ways. However, we still need to do a lot of work on teasing out the underlying mechanisms and understanding how promoting these processes can help people, with different characteristics in varying circumstances as well as understanding what the blocks to progress might be and how they can be addressed.
Promoting Compassion For Self And Others?
So where does this leave us on an individual level, now, if we’re trying to develop compassion in our lives to promote positive wellbeing? From Neff’s research based work on SC and Gilbert’s work rooted in evolutionary theory and clinical application, I suggest you consider the following issues.
Your Beliefs About Self Compassion
Examine your beliefs about SC which may relate to your upbringing. Common misgivings about SC are that it is weak, selfish, self-indulgent and about making excuses and self-pity. These reflect a lack of understanding of the true nature of SC. In fact research indicates SC is associated with resilience rather than weakness, better investment in relationships rather than selfishness, healthier behaviours with a long term focus rather than self indulgence. SC is less about making excuses than allowing yourself to admit mistakes without beating yourself up, thus minimising self pity. People high in SC actually take more responsibility for their actions, realise failure is part of life and tend to pick themselves up and try again. This relates to the further false belief that SC undermines motivation. We tend to feel we need that critical voice to ensure effort and achievement. However evidence does not support this and people high in SC tend to show better achievement and engagement than those high in self criticism.
Your Ability To Feel And Tolerate Emotions
Compassion based experiential exercises encourage feeling difficult emotions in the body. Some people find this very aversive particularly if they have developed a coping style associated with avoidance. Even being exposed to supposedly “pleasant” affiliative emotions can feel threatening to some people depending on their developmental history. Being able to feel and tolerate a full range of emotions is a key area in promoting all types of compassion. Many people need to proceed slowly with this and if it is particularly difficult for you the help of a therapist may be useful. Being overwhelmed by intense emotional experiences is one reason why people might give up pursuing compassion based practices.
Consider Your History Of Attachment
Linked to the ability to experience and tolerate emotions, trying to enhance SC may need you to be willing to look at your attachment history. How your experience of relating to others and feeling safe and secure has developed over time and through a range of relationships will influence your ability to relate with kindness to yourself and be open to kindness from others. There is a spectrum here, but it is not just people who have a history of abuse or a clinical disorder that need to be cautious here. Most of us have experienced some issues with attachment. While this is usually more pronounced if experienced during childhood, later relationship patterns can also be relevant. An openness to exploring these ideas can promote the journey to increased SC.
Look At Your Levels Of Self Criticism and Shame
Consistently Self Criticism and Shame have been found to be negatively associated with SC. Harsh self judgement Vs self kindness represent one of Neff’s defining components of SC, however this may not be a simple spectrum and learning to be aware of and reduce self critical thinking may be a complementary process to learning to relate to yourself kindly. Being prepared to reduce the hold of your inner critic may be hard. Those who have associated shame, where they make global negative evaluations of themselves, may have difficulty in believing they deserve SC and this can be a major impediment to progress requiring therapeutic intervention.
Despite these pitfalls, perils and our need for better quality research to underpin practice, I still believe the compassionate path is one worth taking if our goal is authentic wellbeing. It is however, not a shortcut and our individualistic, competitively oriented culture can add further roadblocks to compassion which need addressing at a societal level.
Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Matos, M. & Rivis, A. (2011). Fears of compassion: Development of three self-report measures. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 84, 239–255.
López, A., Sanderman, R, Ranchor, A.V. & Schroevers, M.J. (2018). Compassion for Others and Self-Compassion: Levels, Correlates, and Relationship with Psychological Well-being. Mindfulness, 9, 325–331
Neff, K. (2011). Self Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton. Lopez et al 2018,
Neff, K.D. & Pommier, E. (2013). The Relationship between Self-compassion and Other-focused Concern among College Undergraduates, Community Adults, and Practicing Meditators. Self and Identity, 12, 160–176.
About the author: Sarah Monk
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