Self-compassion: An often misunderstood part of health and well-being

Researcher shares five myths about self-compassion.

What comes to mind for you when you hear the word self-compassion? For many, words like self-pity, self-centered and self-indulgent come to mind. People often think that self-compassion is about letting ourselves off the hook or making excuses for our mistakes and shortcomings. These are common misconceptions according to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Texas and pioneering researcher in the area of self-compassion. 

According to Neff, self-compassion is about asking ourselves what we need and offering comfort and care during times of stress, pain and difficulties. She stresses that self-compassion is actually a motivator that helps people move toward overall health and well-being for themselves. For example, an increasing body of research suggests that self-compassion reduces anxiety and depression—and enables people to suffer less while also helping them to thrive. 

Too often we get in our own way when it comes to self-compassion. Many of us have learned inaccurate information through a steady stream of dominant culture and societal messages—and we’ve come to believe that self-compassion is not a quality we should practice. Neff shares five common myths about self-compassion: 

  1. “Self-compassion is a form of self-pity.” While this is a common misperception of self-compassion, research shows quite the contrary. People who get stuck in “ain’t it awful” thinking, self-pity and feeling sorry for themselves are actually less likely to be self-compassionate. People who are more self-compassionate are better able to take life’s difficulties as they come, move through them with more ease and grace and keep things in perspective.
  2. “Self-compassion means weakness.” When we come face-to-face with our mistakes, faults and failings, it’s very common for our shame to get triggered which makes us feel exposed and vulnerable. And when we’re unaware that our shame has been triggered, we may try to protect ourselves from painful feelings by shutting down, acting tough or acting aggressively toward ourselves and others. Far from being a weakness, researchers are finding that self-compassion is one of the most important aspects of coping, resilience and mental health as we move through the inevitable complexities and messiness of life.
  3. “Self-compassion will make me complacent.” Many believe that judgement and harsh criticism for self and others is the best way to motivate people and that self-compassion will make us lazy, unmotivated and indifferent. What research actually shows is that fear-based self-criticism leads to a fear of failure, lack of confidence and depression. While self-criticism kills motivation, self-compassion motivates us to be more proactive, take risks and achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives.
  4. “Self-compassion is narcissistic.” This myth stems largely from confusion about the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion. Many of us have heard about the importance of helping youth and adults develop self-esteem. And while there is general consensus that self-esteem is positive, research shows that the focus on helping people “feel good about themselves” sometimes comes at a high cost. For example, the emphasis on developing self-esteem is linked to self-criticism, self-judging, self-evaluating, perfectionism and comparing oneself to others. For some, having high self-esteem means feeling superior, above average and better than others and is linked to bullying behaviors such as putting others down as a way of trying to feel better about oneself. Self-compassion is different. Self-compassion honors the fact that we all have strengths and weaknesses and recognizes that our successes and failures don’t define who we are. Self-compassion also encourages us to see ourselves as interconnected to a common web of shared humanity while extending to ourselves the same respect, understanding, kindness and care that we would to a beloved friend or loved one.
  5. “Self-compassion is selfish.” For many people, especially women, our concept of self is closely tied to taking responsibility for everyone else’s physical and emotional needs. When we’ve been taught that we’re supposed to take care of others at all costs, we may feel that being self-compassionate is the same as being selfish. According to Neff, a growing body of research shows that being self-compassionate and taking good care of ourselves helps us to sustain our capacity for generosity and service to others while not becoming burned out, angry or resentful.

Practicing self-compassion helps us to accept our own humanness and imperfections with kindness and increases people’s motivation to learn, to change for the better and to avoid repeating past mistakes. It also helps people feel less isolated and helps them keep their problems in perspective. Self-compassion has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression and lead to greater emotional balance and resilience in the face of struggles and challenges. If you’re interested in finding out how self-compassionate you are, you can use Kristen Neff’s self-compassion scale

Michigan State University Extension provides resources, workshops and programs to help parents, adults and youth develop social and emotional skills and practice everyday mindfulness through programs like Stress Less with Mindfulness and Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.  

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