How Much Do You Really Understand Self-Compassion?

The 5 Myths Keeping You Trapped in Self-Criticism

Kristin Neff

Most people don’t have any problem with seeing compassion as a thoroughly commendable quality. It seems to refer to an amalgam of unquestionably good qualities: kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, empathy, sympathy, and fellow-feeling, along with an impulse to help other living creatures, human or animal, in distress. But we seem less sure about self-compassion. For many, it carries the whiff of all those other bad “self” terms: self-pity, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-centered, just plain selfish. Even many generations removed from our culture’s Puritan origins, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t blaming and punishing ourselves for something, we risk moral complacency, runaway egotism, and the sin of false pride.

There’s now an impressive and growing body of research demonstrating that relating to ourselves in a kind, friendly manner is essential for emotional wellbeing. Not only does it help us avoid the inevitable consequences of harsh self-judgment—depression, anxiety, and stress—it also engenders a happier and more hopeful approach to life. More pointedly, research proves false many of the common myths about self-compassion that keep us trapped in the prison of relentless self-criticism.

Myth 1: Self-Compassion is a Form of Self-Pity

One of the biggest myths about self-compassion is that it means feeling sorry for yourself. In fact, self-compassion is an antidote to self-pity and the tendency to whine about our bad luck. This isn’t because self-compassion allows you to tune out the bad stuff; in fact, it makes us more willing to accept, experience, and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness—which paradoxically helps us process and let go of them more fully. Research shows that self-compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self-pitying thoughts about how bad things are. That’s one of the reasons self-compassionate people have better mental health.

Myth 2: Self-Compassion Means Weakness

Instead of being a weakness, researchers are discovering that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us. When we go through major life crises, self-compassion appears to make all the difference in our ability to survive and even thrive.

David Sbarra and his colleagues at the University of Arizona examined whether self-compassion helps determine how well people adjust to a divorce. The researchers invited more than 100 people recently separated from their spouses to come into the lab and make a four-minute stream-of-consciousness recording of their thoughts and feelings about the separation experience.

The researchers found that participants who displayed more self-compassion when talking about their breakup evidenced better psychological adjustment to the divorce at the time, and that this effect persisted nine months later. Studies like this one suggest that it’s not just what you face in life, but how you relate to yourself when the going gets tough—as an inner ally or enemy—that determines your ability to cope successfully.

Myth 3: Self-Compassion Will Make Me Complacent

Perhaps the biggest block to self-compassion is the belief that it’ll undermine our motivation to push ourselves to do better. The idea is that if we don’t criticize ourselves for failing to live up to our standards, we’ll automatically succumb to slothful defeatism.

But there’s now a good deal of research clearly showing that self-compassion is a far more effective force for personal motivation than self-punishment. For instance, a series of research experiments by Juliana Breines and Serena Chen of the University of California at Berkeley examined whether helping undergraduate students to be more self-compassionate would motivate them to engage in positive change. In one study, participants were asked to recall a recent action they felt guilty about—such as cheating on an exam, lying to a romantic partner, saying something harmful—that still made them feel bad about themselves when they thought about it.

The researchers found that participants who were helped to be self-compassionate about their recent transgression reported being more motivated to apologize for the harm done and more committed to not repeating the behavior again than those in the control conditions. Self-compassion, far from being a way to evade personal accountability, actually strengthens it.

Myth 4: Self-Compassion is Narcissistic

Self-compassion is different from self-esteem. Although they’re both strongly linked to psychological wellbeing, self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self-worth, while self-compassion isn’t a judgment or an evaluation at all. Instead, self-compassion is way of relating to the ever-changing landscape of who we are with kindness and acceptance—especially when we fail or feel inadequate. In other words, self-esteem requires feeling better than others, whereas self-compassion requires acknowledging that we share the human condition of imperfection.

Self-compassionate people are better able to remain emotionally stable, regardless of the degree of praise they receive from others. Self-esteem, in contrast, thrives only when the reviews are good, and it may lead to evasive tactics when there’s a possibility of facing unpleasant truths about oneself.

Myth 5: Self-Compassion is Selfish

Unfortunately, the ideal of being modest, self-effacing, and caring for the welfare of others often comes with the corollary that we must treat ourselves badly. This is especially true for women, who, research indicates, tend to have slightly lower levels of self-compassion than men, even while they tend to be more caring, empathetic, and giving toward others. But a growing body of research indicates that self-compassion helps people sustain the act of caring for others. For instance, it appears that counselors and therapists who are self-compassionate are less likely to experience stress and caregiver burnout; they’re more satisfied with their careers and feel more energized, happy, and grateful for being able to make a difference in the world.

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When we care tenderly for ourselves in response to suffering, our heart opens. Compassion engages our capacity for love, wisdom, courage, and generosity. It’s a mental and emotional state that’s boundless and directionless, grounded in the great spiritual traditions of the world but available to every person simply by virtue of our being human. Therapists have known for a long time that being kind to ourselves isn’t—as is too often believed—a selfish luxury, but the exercise of a gift that makes us happier. Now, finally, science is proving the point.

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Kristin Neff, PhD, is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and the 6 CD audio set Self-Compassion Step by Step.

This blog is excerpted from "The 5 Myths of Self-Compassion," by Kristin Neff. The full version is available in the September/October 2015 issue, Self-Compassion: Self-Indulgence or Self-Healing?

Illustration © Illustration Source/Coco Masuda

Topic: Mindfulness | Anxiety/Depression

Tags: caregiver | mental health | mental illness | mindful | psychotherapy | self-compassion | therapist | therapy | networker | compassion | Kristin Neff | kindness | mercy | self-pity | self-judgment | David Sbarra | Juliana Breines | Serena Chen

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2 Comments

Thursday, October 1, 2015 8:10:29 PM | posted by Dianne shaw
I think this is very key to shifting from shame and blame to enduring and evolving in our interactions. What do you see are the critical or pivotal moments and how do we insert this mental model into them?

Monday, September 28, 2015 1:58:06 PM | posted by Gary Westover
Though I don't disagree that women are typically less self-compassionate than men, I'd like to point out that one obstacle men uniquely face when it comes to being self-compassionate is that is smacks of "unmanliness." For many men, our indoctrination into manhood (still) involves 'sucking it up' or 'gutting it out' or not acknowledging either physical or emotional pain, which can, and does, seriously impair a man's ability to be self-compassionate.