The Power of Mindful Self-Compassion
By Chris Germer
When you have a friend who is struggling—perhaps they failed at something or got some bad news—how do you respond? Most likely you will be patient and understanding, speak kindly with your friend, and try to make your friend feel less alone. And how do you treat yourself when you suffer, fail, or feel inadequate? I have asked this question to people all over the world and I hear the same thing – “I’m critical, impatient, demanding…” There is a big difference between how we treat ourselves and how we treat others when things go wrong in our lives. As the saying goes, “If we spoke to others as we speak to ourselves, we’d have no friends!”
Research by Kristin Neff and colleagues bears this out. The vast majority of us—78%–are more compassionate toward others than ourselves. Only 6% are more compassionate toward themselves than others, and the remaining 16% are about equal.
People usually wonder why this is so. Curiously, most people around the world think that there is a quirk in their own culture that makes them hard on themselves. In South America they blame their Catholic upbringing, in China they blame Confucianism. There are indeed some cultural differences, but the main culprit seems to be our tendency to react to emotional threats with fight-flight-freeze. And when we don’t have a visible, external enemy, we go after ourselves with self-criticism (“you idiot”), we isolate ourselves (from shame), and we get stuck in our heads (frozen), ruminating about the problem. Sadly, our natural instinct when things go wrong in our lives is to add insult to injury.
There is a solution, however—self-compassion. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, defines of self-compassion as consisting of 3 components: self-kindness (warmth and support), a sense of common humanity (“just like me”), and mindfulness (balanced, fluid awareness). Those components are the opposite of self-criticism, isolation, and rumination, respectively. Self-compassion is a state of “loving, connected presence.” Fortunately, self-compassion can be learned by anyone, no matter how much difficulty they have endured in this lifetime.
If you want to measure your own level of self-compassion, please visit Kristin’s website. Self-compassion is strongly associated with emotional wellbeing, lower levels of anxiety and depression, coping with life challenges, healthy habits such as diet and exercise, and more satisfying personal relationships. It is an inner strength that enables us to be more fully human—more fully ourselves.
There are a handful of common myths about self-compassion which get in the way of practice, such as the idea that self-compassion will make a person weak, narcissistic, or reduce motivation. Actually, research shows precisely the opposite. Self-compassion is a powerful factor in emotional resilience and coping after a challenging life event, such as divorce, a health crisis, or war trauma. The research also shows that as people grow in self-compassion, they become more compassionate toward others and make better companions. Finally, self-compassionate people are more motivated to take on difficult challenges, not less. This is easy to understand because we know how much more motivated we are when someone talks to us in a supportive way rather than with harsh criticism.
Another misunderstanding is that compassion is primarily about nurturing. But isn’t it a heroic, compassionate act for a fire fighter to run into a burning building to save a trapped person? Kristin and I like to point out that compassion (and self-compassion) have both yin (“being with”) and yang (“action”) aspects. The action side means that, when we’re self-compassionate, we have the capacity to say “NO!” to protect ourselves, to say “YES!” to meet our needs, and also to motivate ourselves to do difficult things “(You can do it!”). Self-compassion is a source of strength not only to live more comfortably in our own skin, but also to fight social injustice.
Public interest in self-compassion is growing rapidly. One reason is the sheer volume of research coming out that supports the value of self-compassion. Another reason is the link to mindfulness. Mindfulness is now in nearly every aspect of modern society—healthcare, education, medicine, business, even the bedroom—and self-compassion is the emotional heart of mindfulness. Whereas mindfulness is about loving awareness of moment-to-moment experience, compassion is loving awareness of the experiencer. Especially when we are dealing with difficult and disturbing emotions (such as shame), we usually need to hold ourselves before we can hold our experience in a mindful way. That’s where self-compassion comes in. Together, mindfulness and self-compassion are a powerful combination that allow us live our lives more fully through good times and bad. Mindfulness and compassion are best friends.
Mindfulness seems to be the perfect antidote to the fast pace of modern society and information overload. It teaches us to slow down and to savor what we’re doing right now and not sell out our lives for illusory goals. Compassion, and especially self-compassion, appears to be an antidote to the loneliness that is epidemic in modern society. Compassion presupposes that human beings have more in common than what separates us, and by opening to our common humanity, especially when we suffer, we see how we are all connected. For example, a key insight of self-compassion is to remember that “just as all beings wish to be loved, so also do I wish to be loved, most all the time.” When we remember this simple truth, we already feel less alone when we look a stranger in the eye.
Perhaps one of the main benefits of self-compassion is how it boosts our self-worth. It does this in an interesting way. Usually we feel good about ourselves by how we compare to others on the social pecking order. Self-compassion builds self-worth by an entirely different mechanism—by how we respond to ourselves when things go wrong. When we are self-compassionate, we are a kind and supportive friend to ourselves. It’s an internal source of self-worth that is more reliable and portable than external approval or success.
How can we become more self-compassionate? Here are two simple tips:
Ask yourself how you would treat a dear friend in a similar situation, and then do that for yourself. You can do this in actions, in words, or simply by bringing the same attitude to yourself.
Ask yourself what you need, especially what you may need to comfort, soothe, or validate yourself, or to protect, provide for, or motivate yourself?
Chris Germer, PhD is a clinical psychologist, lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and founding faculty member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. He is a co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, the author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, and co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.