What is Self-Compassion?

The technical definition

Self-compassion is the extension of kindness, care, warmth, and understanding (instead of beratement and criticism) toward oneself when faced with shortcomings, inadequacies, or failures.

Huh? What does that mean?

Self-compassion is the care and nurturing we offer ourselves when we make mistakes, embarrass ourselves, or come short of a goal we were hoping to achieve. It is the acknowledgment of our pain, and the rejection of the notion that we should just “tough it out.”

Having self-compassion means to honor and accept your own humanness and accept that in life, you will encounter a number of unfortunate circumstances, sometimes where you’re the one at fault.  Self-compassion is having grace for oneself.

When witnessing someone else’s suffering or hardship, you may be moved by their pain. You may be moved enough to offer comfort, concern, and well wishes. Take for example, a homeless man on the street; when encountering him, you may notice his pain and wonder if under different circumstances your life could have turned out the same way. Fueled by compassion, you offer assistance of some kind in the form of a couple of dollars or maybe even by buying him a sandwich at a nearby deli.  Or imagine your best friend is going through a terrible time in her marriage-she’s on the brink of divorce. Compassion for her and her situation leads you to offer a listening ear, a comforting hug, or maybe some kind words of encouragement.

Now, consider for a moment: how you respond to yourself when you’ve messed up or haven’t done something quite right? Do you offer yourself the same level of care?

How can I use this in my life?

It’s common for many to reject the idea of self-compassion, believing that having compassion for oneself just leads to a pattern of masking excuses for poor behavior or engagement in unnecessary indulgences; however, research on self-compassion has produced a wealth of evidence refuting that claim, reporting that the contrary is actually true: there are many benefits to practicing self-compassion.

People with self-compassion:

  • Procrastinate less. Compared to those who try to use guilt, shame, or fear as motivators to complete a project or goal, the ones who practice self-compassion are the ones who spend less time dragging their feet when it comes time to perform a task.
  • Re-engage after failure. Those who are accepting and caring towards themselves after a perceived or real failure will be much more likely to “get back on the horse” and keep going.
  • Take on more accountability. Contrary to what some might assume, self-compassion does not relieve someone of their ownership of a problem; rather, self-compassion actually serves to assist someone in being able to make a more realistic assessment of the role they played in problem process.
  • Are open to feedback. Those who are more compassionate with themselves will not crumble if they receive feedback from others. This is because those who practice self-compassion know they have inherent value and abilities to recover— even if the feedback is not positive.

Some tips to practicing self-compassion:

1) Acknowledge your pain. Notice when you’re hurting and allow yourself to mourn the fact that you are not perfect. Resist the temptation to pretend like nothing’s wrong or that your feelings don’t matter.

2) Adopt a new perspective. View the world through the lens of a best friend or caring individual. When you’re tempted to be self-critical or judgmental, try to speak to yourself as someone who cares about you would; consider what they might say to encourage you.

3) Practice. Being self-compassionate is not an innate quality, and it’s often learned in our family of origin. Depending on our childhood circumstances, this may or may not have been a skill that we learned from our parents. As adults, we can chose to practice this skill until one day it feels like second nature.

One way to practice is by taking five minutes at the end of the day and writing about the worst thing that happened to you during the day.  Pretend like you’re writing about it from the stance of someone who cares about you. In one study, participants who did this every day for one week reported experiencing a greater sense of happiness toward their lives. In just a few caring moments a day, you can increase your own well-being – try it!


Armstrong, K. (20112010). Twelve steps to a compassionate life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: William Morrow.

2 thoughts on “What is Self-Compassion?”

  1. I had to write what my goals would look like if I didn’t achieve perfection or failure but something in between. That is where most of us are. I took weeks writing the simple exercise because the minute I tried to write anything less than perfection, I got upset. I started berating myself and demanded the best like a drill sergeant. Finally I sat down and started and it was not so bad. I was calmer and more optimistic. I was more compassionate with achieving the in between. I recommend it.


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