What Holds Us Back from Being Kind, Supportive, and Compassionate Towards Ourselves?
Most of us find it easy to see compassion as a positive quality in others. It's closely related to other qualities we typically view as good: kindness, care, understanding, empathy, and the act of helping.
But when it comes to self-compassion, it often stirs up many reservations. Perhaps you've had some reservations about the new concept of Self-Compassion yourself. It's even more likely that you have reservations about what we call "selvmedfølelse" in Danish.
Below, I'll go over the reservations – and yes, the myths – that I often encounter about Self-Compassion (and yes, selvmedfølelse). These are myths about Self-Compassion that don't hold up upon closer examination.
Perhaps some of these reservations come from the fact that other words starting with 'self,' which we typically perceive as negative, like "self-centered" or "self-satisfied," might make us a bit anxious about losing our motivation and drive if we practice self-compassion. And maybe we're worried about getting stuck in a lot of irrational (and uncomfortable) emotions?
If you can recognize some of the reservations mentioned above, you're not alone. Many people distance themselves from the concept of self-compassion, perhaps because it runs so deep in us and in our culture that we don't want to be anywhere near being 'too much focused on ourselves.'
Are We Speaking English or Danish?
New concepts are often easier to use in English. Therefore, we often talk about Compassion or Self-Compassion instead of medfølelse and selvmedfølelse. But it's the same thing. It can't be translated differently. It's important when discussing reservations about compassion because the reservations that especially the term 'selvmedfølelse' evokes aren't about which language we use; they are the same reservations I've encountered internationally over the past six years while teaching Self-Compassion in English.
Our reservations are more about how research defines and understands words like empathy and compassion differently than how we use them in everyday life. So, we need to refine our understanding of words like empathy and compassion.
Compassion is a Completely Normal Reaction
We define compassion as being aware of pain in others (physical or psychological) and simultaneously having a desire to alleviate that pain. I'm sure you've experienced being compassionate towards others. We often express it easily and simply in everyday encounters with friends, acquaintances, or colleagues. It's when we inquire about whether the other person is okay, saying something like, "You look a bit tired; are you okay?" and perhaps even saying, "I can understand why you feel that way; I would too if it were me," or "Would you like to join me for a cup of coffee?"
I'm guessing you can relate to this everyday conversation. And this conversation consists of the three elements that need to be present for others to perceive us as compassionate: awareness that something is difficult (mindfulness), a perspective that the other person's experience is common and human (the perspective of shared humanity), and an action element with an intention to support or help (kindness).
These three elements are the same whether we are compassionate towards others or towards ourselves. Let's take a closer look at self-compassion.
What is Self-Compassion, Actually?
When we turn the three elements of compassion towards ourselves, it often becomes a bit more complicated.
The first element is mindfulness, or simply put, awareness. Mindfulness invites us to be open and accepting of our experience of discomfort in the moment without ignoring it or turning it into a drama or getting stuck in it for days. It's an essential starting point for self-compassion because we can't respond with warmth and support if we are not aware of what we are experiencing. However, we often do the opposite when we face adversity ourselves: we get caught up in thoughts, emotions, or moods and linger in them.
But self-compassion is more than that. Self-compassion is taking care of yourself when you are experiencing something difficult. It's having the intention to help and support yourself with the warmth and kindness that you would offer to a good friend in the same situation. This is what we call 'kindness,' and it's the active element of self-compassion. In essence, self-compassion means reacting to what you're experiencing with support rather than criticism or judgment.
Self-compassion also includes recognizing our shared humanity, which is the third and final element. It's about reminding ourselves that, like everyone else, we are imperfect and make mistakes. We, like everyone else, react and experience difficult emotions when we face setbacks or adversity. It may sound obvious, but we often forget it. When we face adversity ourselves, we can perceive it as something that (or we ourselves!) should be different. Or maybe that others would have an easier time avoiding that situation. When we can start feeling different from others in this way, using the perspective of shared humanity is a radical shift. It reminds us that we are like others, that adversity is a fundamental and inevitable part of being human.
These are the three elements of self-compassion: the ability to clearly notice what I'm experiencing (mindfulness), actively supporting myself (kindness), and having the perspective that my reaction is normal and human (the perspective of shared humanity).
Research Shows the Significant Effects of Self-Compassion
Fortunately, there is a wealth of research (more than 3000 articles as of spring 2022) showing that being kind and supportive to ourselves is actually essential for our mental and physical well-being. Mental health is closely linked to the ability for self-compassion.
It's also associated with less self-criticism, less depression, anxiety, shame, negative body image, emotional avoidance, and stress. Additionally, self-compassion is associated with positive emotions such as increased joy, satisfaction, optimism, better relationships, more resources for coping with chronic illness, divorce, and other difficult situations, as well as improved physical health and increased capacity for compassion toward others.
In short, self-compassion acts as a buffer that makes it a bit easier to get through all the discomfort we can experience as humans. It's not a vaccine against adversity, of course, but it's the closest thing to it: a concrete method for building inner resources. Not to resist or avoid all the discomfort in life, but to stand stronger, even when we face adversity.
Myths About Self-Compassion
Moreover, research shows that many common reservations about self-compassion are not based in reality. Here are the five reservations I often encounter:
1. I'm Just Pitying Myself
One of the significant reservations is that self-compassion sounds like I'm feeling sorry for myself and making myself a victim. But when we learn to use the perspective of shared humanity, we can see our own experiences in a completely different light that prevents us from getting stuck in self-pity. We learn to see what we're experiencing as something that might indeed be very difficult but is also quite human and common. It's by no means a way to avoid the real difficult thoughts and feelings associated with the situation. When we can also acknowledge and accept our experience and take care of ourselves, we can more easily digest the process and let the emotions subside a bit faster.
Research shows that self-compassion reduces self-pity and the tendency for thoughts to ruminate (especially about all the bad things that happened) (Odou & Brinker, 2014, 2015; Raes, 2010), partly because the focus is on what you can do to support yourself in the situation. This effect is one of the reasons why increased self-compassion leads to better mental health and less anxiety and depression.
2. I'll Be Overwhelmed by Feeling All the Time
Especially the Danish word medfølelse sounds like either it's a specific feeling one has to have or that one must constantly 'feel' or be attentive to emotions. But neither of these is accurate. Again, research uses the word compassion differently than we do in everyday life.
Training in self-compassion is not about feeling or being stuck in emotions. In fact, research shows that you become better at shifting perspective and not focusing on your own discomfort (Neff & Pommier, 2013).
Compassion also doesn't require you to feel a specific way. It's more about having the ability to create a good quality of connection with yourself and others so that you can respond appropriately to discomfort.
3. Self-Compassion Makes Me Weak!
One of the more surprising findings in self-compassion research is that it makes you better at handling adversity. Self-compassion is one of the most potent sources for increasing our resources so we can handle challenging times a little more easily. Resilience, a term also used in Danish, refers to the ability to bounce back after adversity. It's also called the 'bouncy ball effect' because it refers to the reaction in the face of adversity. When we experience significant upheavals in our lives, self-compassion can make all the difference in our ability to find our footing again and thrive because it makes it easier to accept and adapt to the new situation.
There's no doubt that self-compassion makes it easier (not easy!) to get through divorce (Hiraoka et al., 2015), job loss, illness, chronic pain (Sirois, Molnar & Hirsch, 2015, Wren et al., 2012), trauma (Hiraoka et al., 2015), and other major challenges.
Studies like these show that it's not only what you experience in your life that matters, but how you relate to yourself when you experience what you experience. Are you your own inner enemy or ally? It's crucial for how you can handle adversity. Self-compassion doesn't make you weak; quite the opposite. It makes it easier to get through challenging times.
4. I'll Become Self-Centered
Training in self-compassion doesn't mean doing less for others but rather including yourself in the circle of those you want to support.
This is one of the significant reservations for many people, and fortunately, the research is clear: when you increase your ability for self-compassion, you are perceived as more supportive, more attentive, and more caring in your relationships (Neff & Beretvas, 2013; Wayment, West & Craddock, 2016). You become less jealous (Tandler & Petersen, 2018), better at seeking compromise in conflicts (Yarnell & Neff, 2013), and generally more compassionate towards others (Neff & Pommier, 2013).
Another aspect of the fear of becoming too self-absorbed may be the fear that we'll make short-term decisions and only do what we feel like doing. For example, eating ice cream and watching a movie instead of exercising, even though we want to change our lifestyle. However, the inner self-compassionate voice is more like a parent demanding that a child eat food and do homework instead of playing video games. It focuses on the long-term perspective, not just short-term desires when you train in self-compassion.
Research shows that increased self-compassion leads to more active behaviors driven by a desire for health (Sirois, 2015), such as exercise (Magnus, Kowalski & McHugh, 2010), healthy eating habits (Schoenefeld & Webb, 2013), reduced alcohol consumption (Brooks et al., 2012), and more frequent doctor visits (Terry et al., 2013).
5. I'll Lose Motivation
One of the important reservations about training in self-compassion is the idea that it might make us a bit too self-satisfied, lazy, or cause us to lose our drive and motivation. Many of us see self-criticism as necessary to get things done.
However, self-criticism can undermine satisfaction and increase the fear of failure (Moore et al., 2018). When we motivate ourselves for change with self-compassion, the desire for change comes from a deep-seated desire for health and well-being. This means that self-compassion can provide the supportive foundation that makes it possible to make changes (Dundas, Binder, Hansen & Stige, 2017; Zhang & Chen, 2016).
It might be simpler to imagine a good soccer coach. If he yells, scolds, or gets fiercely angry every time a goal isn't scored, he can be an image of our self-criticism. If, on the other hand, he is clear in his expectations and desires and helps get us back on track when we haven't trained correctly, haven't slept enough, or aren't playing as agreed...and therefore don't score goals, he represents the inner self-compassionate voice as a motivator.
Research shows that those with a high degree of self-compassion have just as high expectations for themselves; they just aren't as hard on themselves when they fail (Hope, Koestner & Milyavskaya, 2014; Neff, 2003b). This means they have less fear of failure (Kilham et al., 2018; Neff, Hseih, & Dejitthirat, 2007) and are more likely to try again and be persistent even when they fail (Breines & Chen, 2012; Kreemers, van Hooft & van Vianen, 2018).
6. I'll Lose My Initiative
Self-compassion provides the inner security needed to admit mistakes instead of blaming others.
Research shows that those with a high degree of self-compassion also take more responsibility for their actions (Leary et al., 2007) and are more likely to apologize to others when appropriate (Breines & Chen, 2012).
The above are the six reservations and myths I often hear. I hope it sheds some light on self-compassion that you weren't aware of. There's a lot to gain by increasing our ability for self-compassion, as it affects all aspects of our mental health.
When we start taking care of ourselves in the midst of difficulties, our lives don't immediately become easier, but we can handle what's difficult much more easily!
Chris Germer, the clinical psychologist who co-developed the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, formulates it like this: when you can give yourself the attention you need, you don't need as much attention.