Self-compassion is commonly misunderstood. While some misunderstandings have minimal effect, misconceptions about self-compassion have profound impact. Often misunderstood as an excuse to feel self-pity, a reason to stop trying, or a rationale to be selfish—a kind of de facto admission of weakness or impurity—most people never consider self-compassion as an important step in meeting and dealing with life’s inevitable challenges. While there is cultural acceptance of practicing compassion, which includes both awareness that someone is suffering and a genuine desire to alleviate this suffering, directing this awareness and desire toward our selves has received short shrift.
Wrong-headed beliefs about self-compassion lead people to not take enough care when they need it most. These misguided beliefs are often fueled by culturally limiting beliefs that connect masculinity with not needing help. For example, recent research has revealed that many soldiers who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) do not seek help, in part because they don’t want to be identified as having a disorder. Only weaklings have disorders, so to speak. If they were to practice self-compassion, they would be aware that they needed help, be kind to themselves by getting help, and also realize that anyone in their circumstances would likely experience trauma and need help.
Kristin Neff, an original researcher in the field of self-compassion, defines it as having three primary elements:
- Self-Kindness vs. Self-Criticism: It means being empathetic and warm toward ourselves when we suffer rather than ignoring our pain or beating ourselves up through self-criticism.
- Common Humanity vs. Isolation: All human beings suffer. We all fail at times. We all have losses. We share much with others simply by being human. It can help us reach out or receive support when we need it most.
- Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification: Mindfulness includes being balanced towards our negative emotions so that we neither suppress nor exaggerate them. We practice looking at our negative thoughts, not looking through them.
Research reveals strong evidence that practicing self-compassion correlates with a bunch of positive results: protection against stress, less vulnerability to criticism, recovery from painful experiences, increased feelings of self-worth, improved performance after setbacks, a core sense of optimism, and general happiness. The good news is that self-compassion can be learned and practiced.