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Self-Compassion: Do Better When You Feel Better

by Brittney Schrick - June 2, 2017

Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others. --Christopher GermerYou have likely heard of the concept of self-esteem, but what about self-compassion? Although they sound similar, their processes and outcomes are not. Self-esteem is the notion of confidence in your own worth and abilities. People who have high self-esteem, are confident that they are worthy of success and love, and that they have unique abilities. While this is certainly a positive way to feel about oneself, confidence in ability regardless of evidence to the contrary often leads to negative outcomes such as overconfidence, narcissism, and dips in self-esteem in the face of failure. (Think of a contestant on a singing competition who is genuinely untalented but very surprised to find that out.) Self-compassion, on the other hand, is simply the notion that, regardless of success or failure, you are human and worthy of kindness...even (and especially) from yourself.

Why is self-compassion helpful?

Our culture seems to value and expect negative self-talk. We are given many examples from childhood of someone beating themselves up for a mistake or a failure, and we often hear criticisms from adults as we grow up. The assumption that often goes with negative self-talk (and critical parenting) is that it motivates us to do better. If you tell yourself, "You are such a fat cow!" when you look in the mirror, maybe you will start exercising more regularly. If you say, "Ugh, you are so stupid! Why didn't you study??" maybe you'll do better next time. The problem is, that doesn't really work. Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist who studies self-compassion and motivation, has found in her research that people do not achieve more or do better when they engage in negative self-talk. It often has the opposite effect, and it can cause a negative cycle that is difficult to break.

How do you practice self-compassion?

Without judgement, uncontingent on success, we treat ourselves kindly and with understanding. 

Treat yourself with kindness

We have high standards for ourselves. We want to succeed, and we want to do things well. We don't like to make mistakes, and it can be difficult to admit it when we do. So, we are often very harsh with ourselves when we do mess up. What can you do instead? In moments of difficulty or pain, try treating yourself with encouragement, sympathy, patience, and gentleness (Neff).

Recognize our common humanity

Do you ever feel like no one else would ever make the mistakes you do? Or that someone else in your life is a much better parent than you are? We like to focus on differences and uniqueness rather than on commonness and similarity. In reality, everyone (really, EVERYONE) makes mistakes. In every aspect of life. All the time. They aren't equally large or exactly the same, but assuming that others wouldn't make the mistake you just did is isolating. It assumes that you are all alone on an island of mistakes where no one can understand your pain. But, we are all imperfect. That common imperfection is very freeing to think about. We all mess up. We are all human. 

Be mindful

In order to show compassion to ourselves (or to anyone else), we first have to recognize that we need it. We need to pay attention to how we speak to ourselves in moments of stress. Much of our stress could be saved, or at least lessened, if we didn't add to the stress with constant criticism. Greet those negative moments with support instead of attack. 

Self-compassion in real life

One of the areas we may find the most healing and helpful in using self-compassion is in parenting. How often do you make a parenting choice that you regret? I know I make them daily! I was too harsh or too lenient. I yelled or I wasn't firm enough. I was too rigid or I was too unstructured. It sometimes feels as though nothing is right. Whatever decision I make, I should have made a different one. I feel confident that I am not alone in feeling that way (common humanity). In the aftermath of questioning a parenting decision, I often feel one of two ways: defensive ("Well, what was I suppsed to do?") or upset ("I'm going to scar them for life! Why did I do that??"). Regardless of what I did or didn't do to lead to this moment, what I do in the aftermath is often what I end up regretting more. If I feel guilty about a decision I made, I may overcorrect by being extra nice or lenient, or I may become short with my children, or I may become emotional and my kids feel bad for me. 

So, what can we as parents do to disrupt this cycle? We can give ourselves a break. We can respond to ourselves the way we would respond to a friend who had a similar experience. If a friend told you, "Ugh! I just yelled at the girls, and I feel so guilty about it!" would you say, "Yeah, you should! I'm perfect and never yell at anyone. They will definitely be scarred for life"? Or would you hug them and say, "Wow, I'm sorry. I can tell you feel bad. You'll do better next time!" We are generally much kinder and more forgiving to friends and family than we are with ourselves. Practicing self-compassion gives you the room to be human. It offers you the tools to breathe and say, "Ok, that didn't go as planned. I am really upset that I did that. Breathe. It's ok that I'm upset. I can do better now." 

Not only will you feel better personally, you will begin to notice critical statements you may make to your children and others in your life. The voice and words you use to speak to your children become the way they speak to themselves. If you are critical or unkind, they will be critical and unkind. We often worry far more about how our children treat others than how they treat themselves. Just because we cannot see or hear how our children talk to themselves about mistakes or negative emotion doesn't mean it isn't happening. Treating your child with kindness and compassion doesn't mean you do not have standards, it just means that you will work toward using kind and thoughtful ways to communicate with your child. Just like you, your child is a human who is worthy of kindness. 


Neff, K. (n.d.) The newest parenting skill: Self-compassion. 

Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. NY: Harper-Collins This website has lots of information about self-compassion including some exercises and meditations to help you practice.

Kristin Neff TED Talk: A brief introduction to self-compassion