For thousands of years, compassion has motivated men and women to carry heavy burdens, give the shirts off their backs, and risk their lives for others. Compassion has defied the purpose of conflicts and bound humanity together despite significant differences. Courageous individuals, like Desmond Doss, have done more than seems humanly possible because of deep compassion for those around them. Exhibited in many ways, this character strength bridges grace and kindness with common humanity.
Compassion has been defined as a “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”[i] It is comprised of two parts:
- Awareness of what others are going through—their distress or suffering
- Feeling moved by their suffering, responding to their pain/distress, and wishing to decrease their suffering in some way
When you exhibit compassion, you experience an emotion-based desire to care for and help the one suffering. Compassion entails exhibiting understanding and kindness to others when mistakes are made instead of judging them.
Empathy enables you to both cognitively and emotionally identify and experience what someone else is going through. Through empathy, you’re able to understand and engage with others relationally. Empathy therefore is a component of compassion, but compassion has motivation with action.[ii]
Correctly touted as a virtue, many of us have experience exhibiting compassion toward others, yet few of us apply this same grace to ourselves.
It is not natural to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, exhibit kindness and grace, or to refrain from berating yourself for shortcomings. But you are worthy of compassion—not just from others, but to yourself as well. Let’s discover the benefits of self-compassion and how you can develop this character strength.
Researchers have found that compassion to others and toward oneself are both associated with decreased loneliness, better mental wellbeing and improved physical wellbeing across the adult lifespan.[ii]
Additional benefits of higher self-compassion
- Increased happiness
- Improved physical health, such as lower cardiovascular risk, improved diabetes distress, and decreased inflammation
- Great optimism
- Heightened curiosity
- Greater connectedness
- Decreased anxiety
- Lowered depression
- Reduced rumination and fear of failure [ii]
What self-compassion is
Self-compassion means that you extend the same grace you give to someone else who is suffering when you are personally facing a problem, experiencing a failure, or are criticizing yourself. Self-compassion entails extending kindness to one’s own shortcomings, while striving to prioritize health and wellbeing.
What self-compassion is not
Many individuals are concerned that they become too self-compassionate that they will no longer be motivated and may become self-indulgent.[iii] Therapists and researchers have shown that self-compassion is not self-pity, self-indulgence, self-esteem, selfishness, or becoming unmotivated to become a better individual.
Research is uncovering that “[s]elf-compassion involves the desire for the self's health and well-being and is associated with greater personal initiative to make needed changes in one's life. Because self-compassionate individuals do not berate themselves when they fail, they are more able to admit mistakes, modify unproductive behaviors and take on new challenges.”[iii]
The benefits without the risks
Self-compassion has been associated with stable feelings of self-worth over time when compared with traits of self-esteem. Additionally, having self-compassion protects against social comparison, self-rumination, anger, and in direct contrast to self-esteem, has been found to have no associations with narcissism.[iv]
Can I improve my self-compassion?
If you’ve ever expressed compassion toward other people or creatures, I have good news for you! You are capable of developing compassion toward yourself. Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), researchers found that self-compassion involves similar regions of the brain as when expressing compassion toward others.[v]
Learning to give yourself grace and have compassion on your own experience takes time. Exhibiting compassion on yourself and choosing to identify, challenge, and replace misbeliefs about yourself are deeply connected with emotional intelligence (EQ). Research has found a strong association between EQ and self-compassion. [vi] The first portion of emotional intelligence involves being aware of and managing your own emotions. Often when we are tempted to berate ourselves for shortcomings, our emotions take a turn for the worse. However, through identifying our irrational beliefs and replacing them with truth statements, we can not only exhibit great grace and compassion toward ourselves, but we can also change how we feel.
How to develop self-compassion in your thinking
1. Listen to your silent-self talk.
Learn how to hear your internal dialogue here.
- I can’t do anything right, I’m a failure
- I am unlovable, I am unlikeable, I am unattractive, I am undesirable
- I am worthless, I’m unacceptable, I don’t deserve to live, I’m a waste [vii]
2. Analyze your thoughts.
Look for possible irrational, inaccurate, unhelpful beliefs in your thoughts and label those distortions.
- How much do I believe the self-critical thoughts? Rate the strength of your belief between 0 and 100%
- What tone of voice is it using?
- What is the trigger?
- How much do I believe it?
- What emotions come with that thought? [viii]
3. Reconstruct your thinking.
Combat and replace distorted views of yourself with true statements. Replacing misbeliefs can change your emotions and behaviors! Learn how here.
- Change your tone of voice to be softer and have a more understanding perspective
- What would you tell a friend?
- What are some other ways of viewing this situation that might be more realistic, kinder or more helpful to me?
- What can I do to cope and look after myself now?
- What is a more compassionate and helpful conclusion to replace the self-criticism?
- How much do I believe the self-critical thoughts now? Re-rate 0-100%
- How intense is my initial main emotion now? Re-rate 0-100% [viii]
Self-compassion requires honesty and a desire for truth. Because your thoughts are your constant companions, it is imperative to honestly evaluate what is going through your mind and be willing to uproot misbeliefs. Replacing misbeliefs with truth, and repeatedly telling yourself true statements about yourself is one way of developing self-compassion and significantly improving other aspects of your life. Telling Yourself the Truth can help you understand common misbeliefs related to perfectionism, self-hatred, being indispensable, and more.
There are many ways to practice self-compassion, but here are a few recommendations to help begin integrating self-compassion into your life.
Embrace a healthy lifestyle.
Feed your body healthy, nutritious foods. It’s hard to think rationally when your brain doesn’t have what it needs to build important mental health chemicals. Take comfort knowing that you are giving yourself the best when choosing a healthy meal. Engage in regular physical activity, get restorative sleep, spend time in nature, unplug the TV, and even try contrast baths (hydrotherapy). A healthy lifestyle prepares your mind and body to better combat the cycle of critical, loathing, and/or indifferent thoughts preventing you from giving yourself grace and developing emotional intelligence.
Write out steps 1-3 in a notebook. Putting thoughts down on paper can help you see the full picture more easily and this will give you a structure of how to manage your beliefs.
Practice saying no.
We often automatically say yes to things just for the sake of acceptance or approval (people-pleasing). But this tendency may cause undue burdens and stress and reinforce the misbelief that your value comes from approval from others. When we are able to take care of ourselves first and recognize our value, then compassionate “yeses” will be more meaningful and balanced.
You are worthy of your own compassion
Compassion is something you can share with everyone–every single person struggles. But just as you extend this to others, you are worthy of your own compassion. If silent self-talk going through your head is often too critical, berating you for every mistake, demanding an unreasonably high standard, and providing never-ending judgement, take notice. Be aware of this voice and learn to correct it when it tries to derail you. Self-compassion isn’t filling your head with excellencies you may not actually have or telling yourself you’re an incredible person. Self-compassion is an opportunity to challenge your misbeliefs in a kind, non-judgmental way with truth and rational thinking. And as you exhibit grace to yourself, you will experience a more manageable and happier outlook on life.
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i Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Compassion definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
ii Lee, E. E., Govind, T., et al. (2021). Compassion toward others and self-compassion predict mental and physical well-being: a 5-year longitudinal study of 1090 community-dwelling adults across the lifespan. Translational psychiatry, 11(1), 397.
iii Neff K. D. (2009). The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself. Human development, 52(4), 211–214.
iv Neff, K. D., & Vonk, R. (2009). Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of personality, 77(1), 23–50.
v López, A., Sanderman, R., et al. (2018). Compassion for Others and Self-Compassion: Levels, Correlates, and Relationship with Psychological Well-being. Mindfulness, 9(1), 325–331.
vi Leary, M. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (2009). Self-Compassion. In Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (pp. 561–573). essay, Guilford Press.
vii Beck, J. (2011). Week 6: Module 2-Common Core Beliefs. In Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond. essay, The Guilford Press.
viii Saulsman, L., Campbell, B., & Sng, A. (2017). Building Self-Compassion: From Self-Criticism to Self-Kindness. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.