A great deal our our suffering comes from constant comparing of ourselves to other people and feeling isolated in our own imperfection and insecurities. This leads to harsh self-criticism, which makes our lives difficult. Many people try to escape their own self-criticism by becoming high achievers, trying to increase their self-esteem and sense of superiority. But there is a better way.
Self-compassion is a way to relate to ourselves in moments of suffering. It provides the same benefits as high self-esteem (feeling accepted and cared for) without its drawbacks.
Self-compassion is based on three components: mindfulness - accepting your situation as it is - common humanity - recognize that you're not alone in your suffering - and self-kindness - giving yourself words of comfort and support.
Compassion is simply a way of relating to suffering, either your own or someone else’s.
From the Buddhist point of view, you have to care about yourself before you can really care about other people. If you are continually judging and criticizing yourself while trying to be kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation. This is the opposite of oneness, interconnection, and universal love—the ultimate goal of most spiritual paths, no matter which tradition.
Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means “to suffer with,” which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect.
Sadly, however, most people don’t focus on what they have in common with others, especially when they feel ashamed or inadequate. Rather than framing their imperfection in light of the shared human experience, they’re more likely to feel isolated and disconnected from the world around them when they fail.
I realized that self-compassion was the perfect alternative to the relentless pursuit of self-esteem. Why? Because it offers the same protection against harsh self-criticism as self-esteem, but without the need to see ourselves as perfect or as better than others. In other words, self compassion provides the same benefits as high self-esteem without its drawbacks.
The research that my colleagues and I have conducted over the past decade shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives. By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, difficult as it is, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation.
Self-esteem tends to be predicated on separation and comparison, on being better than others, and therefore special. Self-appreciation, in contrast, is based on connectedness, on seeing our similarities with others, recognizing that everyone has their strong points.
Self-appreciation and self-compassion are really two sides of the same coin. One is focused on what brings us pleasure, the other on what brings us suffering. One celebrates our strengths as humans, the other accepts our weaknesses.
Of course, self-criticism must be somewhat effective as a motivator, otherwise so many people wouldn’t do it. If self-criticism works at all, however, it is only for one reason: fear. Because it is so unpleasant to be harshly criticized by ourselves when we fail, we become motivated by the desire to escape our own self-judgment.
One of the biggest problems with using fear as a motivator is that anxiety itself can undermine performance. Whether it’s public speaking anxiety, test anxiety, writer’s block, or stage fright, we know that fear of being negatively judged can be pretty debilitating. Anxiety distracts people from the task at hand, interfering with their ability to focus and give their best.
So why is self-compassion a more effective motivator than self-criticism? Because its driving force is love not fear. Love allows us to feel confident and secure (in part by pumping up our oxytocin), while fear makes us feel insecure and jittery (sending our amygdala into overdrive and flooding our systems with cortisol). When we trust ourselves to be understanding and compassionate when we fail, we won’t cause ourselves unnecessary stress and anxiety. We can relax knowing that we’ll be accepted regardless of how well or how poorly we do.
Many people are afraid they won’t be ambitious enough if they’re compassionate with themselves. Research suggests otherwise. In one study, for example, we examined how people reacted when they failed to meet their standards, and also how high their standards were in the first place. We found that self-compassionate people were just as likely to have high standards for themselves as those who lacked self-compassion, but they were much less likely to be hard on themselves on the occasions when they didn’t meet those standards.
Self-compassion entails three core components:
Self-kindness involves more than merely stopping self-judgment. It involves actively comforting ourselves, responding just as we would to a dear friend in need. It means we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain, stopping to say, “This is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?”
Mindfulness is when we notice our pain without exaggerating it. When we judge ourselves for our mental experience, we are only making things worse. We can release ourselves from the tangled knot of self-judgment by accepting the fact of our experience in the here and now. “These are the thoughts and emotions that are arising in my conscious awareness in the present moment.” A simple statement of fact, with no blame attached.
We don’t need to lambast ourselves for thinking those nasty thoughts or feeling those destructive emotions. As long as we don’t get lost in a story line that justifies and reinforces them, they will tend to dissipate on their own.
Common humanity is thinking about the ways your situation connects you with other people having similar problems. Surely others are struggling with the very same feelings right now. We're in this together.
[🌞 Here you can find some self-compassion exercises from the author]
If you’re finding it difficult to see anything positive about your current situation, it’s probably a signal you need more self compassion. Try using the three doorways of kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness to approach your feelings of fear or distress.
Silently offer kind, nurturing words of support, as if from a close friend. Maybe even give yourself a little hug if no one’s looking. Think about the ways your situation connects you with other people having similar problems—you are not alone. Try taking a few deep breaths, and accepting that the situation is happening, even though you don’t like it much.
Now look again. What is life trying to teach you right now? Is this an opportunity to open your heart, to open your mind? Is there any way that this seeming curse might actually be a blessing?