What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion is trending in the therapy world. It’s an old concept, but lately it’s picked up steam, thanks to Kristen Neff’s work. Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and a meditation devotee, has come up with an 8-week program called Mindful Self-Compassion. It is designed to teach the skills of self-compassion and mindfulness to clients and therapists alike.

Last week I started a version of Neff’s workshop run by two local therapists. Like most people, I have a healthy dose of self-blame when it comes to the things I feel I have gotten wrong in my life: bad decisions I have made or good decisions I have failed to make; flaws of character I have assumed to be endemic and immutable. Like most people, I often beat myself up for not living up to ideals that I subconsciously (or consciously) hold myself to, or for not fulfilling expectations that I imagine other people have of me.

Self-compassion is a simple concept designed to combat these self-defeating narratives by encouraging people to be kind to themselves. As my teachers asserted in our first session, you wouldn’t treat a good friend the way you treat yourself when you feel bad about something you have or haven’t done. Not only does being mean to yourself hurt emotionally, but it also negatively affects your physical health.The idea behind self-compassion is to bring love and kindness to your own foibles, so that you don’t suffer the double pain of failing at something and being berated for that failure by the voices in your own head.

The way to get out from under the common trap of this kind of self-abuse is to use the tool of mindfulness to recognize that you’re being too hard on yourself, and to stop the abuse. By centering yourself in the present moment and finding a space of nonjudgmental awareness, you can look at yourself more objectively and direct compassion toward yourself as you would toward a friend, lover, or vulnerable child. In fact, it is often the vulnerable child inside of you who is the butt of your anger, resentment, and regret. If you can imagine yourself as this child, you can offer them what they need: not abuse, but kindness, love, and comfort.

I am not yet good at offering myself this love in times of emotional duress, but I am hopeful that by the end of this program, I will be able to use the tools of mindfulness and self-compassion to ease some of the pain I sometimes feel when I’m not happy with myself. Stay tuned for my self-compassion journey, and feel free to share your own experiences, what has worked and hasn’t worked for you. I’d love to hear from you!

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