In order to understand self-compassion, you have to first understand the concept of compassion.
Compassion is the ability we all have to show empathy, love, and concern to those who may be experiencing difficulties.
Self-compassion is all about extending that same compassion back toward yourself, which is not always easy to do. Extending that same level of compassion back toward yourself is not self-indulgent or selfish.
Developing a sense of self-compassion can help you in many areas of life, including mental health concerns such as anxiety or insecurity.
In this article, we will explore the most interesting research findings in self-compassion and how you can use them to live a better life.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself but will also give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
Self-compassion, according to Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher, has three main elements:
Self-kindness or having the ability to refrain from harsh criticism.
The ability to recognize your own humanity or the fact that each of us is imperfect and each of us experiences pain.
The ability to maintain a sense of mindfulness or non-biased awareness of experiences, even if they are painful.
Self-compassion is often intertwined with self-esteem, but they really are two distinct concepts. Self-compassion is more about self-acceptance and self-esteem focuses on favorable self-evaluation, especially for achievements, according to Neff.
Self-compassion is not dependent on social comparisons or personal success. It’s more about recognizing and accepting your flaws, which is a process that often leads to growth and personal development.
A Look at the Theory
Those who measure high in self-compassion treat themselves with kindness and concern when experiencing negative events. (Allen & Leary, 2010).
The theory of self-compassion is somewhat new in psychological literature. While self-compassion has been discussed for centuries in Eastern philosophy such as Buddhism, it only appeared in psychological literature around 2003, with research presented by Kristen Neff.
Two articles written by Neff described the construct of self-compassion providing a self-reported inventory for the measurement of individual differences in the tendency to be self-compassionate.
According to the research, self-compassion involves directing the same type of kindness, care, and compassion toward yourself that you would convey toward a loved one who was suffering.
Self-compassion also involves being open to and being moved by your own unique suffering while being caring and kind toward yourself. In order to do this, you must have a nonjudgmental attitude toward your inadequacies and failures, recognizing that your unique experiences are part of the common human experience.
The central aspect of self-compassion involves treating yourself kindly even when things go wrong.
For example, if you fail at something, you can still be kind to yourself. If you make a critical error you can still be self-compassionate and treat yourself with greater kindness.
Treating yourself kindly might involve:
Taking time off to give yourself an emotional break.
Engaging in mental acts of kindness such as positive self-talk.
Giving yourself an encouraging word.
Self-compassion also involves taking on a more balanced perspective of your unique situation, according to Neff. Seeking a more balanced viewpoint allows you to not get so carried away with raw emotion.
When you face situations with self-compassion you tend to not dwell so much on the negativity. In other words, you don’t spend time wallowing. When you maintain a balanced perspective when faced with stress, you can approach the situation more mindfully.
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The Research on Self-Compassion
Much of the research in self-compassion has been conducted utilizing the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS), which was designed to assess trait levels of self-compassion.
This scale was developed to evaluate thoughts, emotions and certain behaviors associated with different components of self-compassion.
The scale includes items such as measuring how often people respond to feelings of inadequacy or suffering. and also measures mindfulness, self-kindness, and self-judgment.
For example, someone who feels inadequate may judge themselves harshly when they are feeling emotional pain, instead of trying to be loving and kind.
Self-judgment may come into play when someone judges their own inadequacies and flaws harshly. Mindfulness also comes into play, by helping one take a more balanced viewpoint if something painful does occur.
The responses on the scale are given on a 5-point scale from almost never to almost always.
The short form self-compassion scale (SCS-SF) contains 12 items instead of 26 items and can be used for research purposes. The short scale has a near perfect correlation with the longer scale when examining total scores.
The scale measures items such as:
Common humanity items
The scores are computed using the mean of subscale item responses.
Hermanto and Zuroff (2018) researched the social mentality theory of self-compassion and self-reassurance in terms of caregiving and care-seeking.
The aim of this study was to test social mentality theory which views self-compassion and reassurance as a form of intrapersonal relating, in which interpersonal mentalities of care-seeking and caregiving are activated.
The study, which was administered to 195 students, focused on self-reported measures of motivations, cognitions, and behaviors associated with seeking and receiving care from others. The study hypothesized that the combination of high care-seeking and high caregiving predicted the highest level of self-compassion and reassurance.
The lowest level of self-compassion and reassurance was predicted by the combination of low care-seeking and high caregiving consistent with the idea of compulsive caregiving.
While previous research has focused on the origin of self-compassion and reassurance coming from early influences and interpersonal experiences, the social mentality theory suggests that self-compassion and reassurance tend to operate through systems that were originally evolved for navigating social roles.
The findings of this study provide empirical support for the social mentality theory.
7 Most Interesting Self-Compassion Research Findings
According to Neff et al. (2007), people with self-compassion are less likely to be critical of themselves and less likely to be anxious or depressed, which, in turn, leads to greater life satisfaction.
Robin Flanigan’s book “The Kindness Cure” (2017), points out that self-criticism does nothing more than make you feel stuck, especially if it is fueling an underlying sense of depression or anxiety. Replacing this kind of disapproval and self-judgment with self-compassion allows you to accept that you are flawed in a gentle way that helps to strengthen mental wellness.
Kristen Neff also talks about the idea that there is a societal misconception when it comes to self-kindness. In her research, she discusses the misconception that it is self-indulgent or narcissistic to practice self-kindness. It is Neff’s thoughts that this misconception needs to be changed.
In a study of counseling psychology graduate students, it was revealed that MBSR (Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction) resulted in significant improvements in mindfulness, which then mediated changes in self-compassion following the intervention.
This study also referred to therapist self-acceptance as critically important, with the research findings showing that therapists who are the most critical of themselves are also the most hostile, controlling and critical of their patients. (Henry, Schacht, & Strupp, 1990). What this tells us is that practitioner self-acceptance is crucial when it comes to engaging with clients in a supportive and accepting manner.
Gordon Flett discusses self-compassion in the journal articleMattering and Positive Psychology. Flett begins with the idea that self-compassion and being able to self-soothe and maintain a positive self-dialogue is key when it comes to the element of positive adjustment.
A young person with a sense of mattering is someone who has a positive self-view that works to promote a sense of self-compassion when setbacks do occur. This helps one refrain from automatically engaging in self-blame and self-criticism.
Self-compassion research is also extending into the area of Sports Psychology. Researchers are accumulating support for self-compassion as a way for athletes to manage difficult emotional experiences in sports.
Women athletes with higher levels of self-compassion have greater levels of personal growth, body appreciation, purpose in life and a sense of responsibility and self-acceptance. It was also shown that these same women have lower levels of body-anxiety and fear of failure in addition to less fear of negative evaluation.
The research also showed that extending compassion toward yourself helps one to increase positivity and dwell less on hardships and obstacles.
One of the most interesting research findings involves self-compassion and neuroscience. In the journal article “The Brain That Longs to Care for Itself: The Current Neuroscience of Self-Compassion (Stevens, Gauthier-Braham and Bush, 2018) researchers looked at the field of neuroscience and how more research on self-compassion could come into play.
Research on self-compassion could be expanded with methodologies like:
These methodologies could be measured both before and after self-compassion workshop training according to the article.
EEG studies, for example, could be critical to the understandings of electrocortical changes that may occur during something such as directed meditation or contemplation. According to the article, self-processing in the brain is poorly understood at best and future research could be very beneficial.
Self-compassion also increases self-improvement motivation, according to Breines and Chen, (2012). In the study, the researchers examined the idea that self-compassion can increase self-improvement motivation.
In four trials, the authors examined the hypothesis that self-compassion can motivate one to improve things like:
Those in a self-compassionate condition expressed a greater belief about a personal weakness compared to those in a self-esteem condition with no intervention or intervention that involved a positive distraction.
The four trials showed several things including:
A higher motivation to make amends and a desire to not repeat transgressions.
Greater desire to spend more time studying after an initial failure.
Greater preference for upward social comparison after thinking about a personal weakness
A greater sense of motivation to change that weakness.
These remarkable findings suggest that taking an accepting approach when it comes to personal failures may actually help people become more motivated for improvement.
Brene Brown’s Work on Self-Compassion
Brene Brown is a professor at the University of Houston. Brown has spent the past two decades researching and studying things like vulnerability and courage, as well as empathy and shame.
Brown is also the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers:
The Gifts of Imperfection,
Braving the Wilderness.
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
Brown’s TED talk – The Power of Vulnerability – is widely viewed.
The power of vulnerability - Brene Brown
Brown studies the idea of human connection and our ability to empathize, belong and love. Brown also writes about shame and the idea that it corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
Brown’s research on shame and the impact of it is groundbreaking. She believes that we deepen our own humanity and sense of connectedness to each other when we are aware of the impact shame has on our lives.
Brown talks a lot about the idea that we are hardwired for “story” – down to the neurological and biological level. As humans, we desire connection and stories are that connection.
Her goal when writing is to tell the truth and walk away feeling proud of what she wrote. She often says she cannot control the outcome.
In addition, she also developed the Shame Resilience Theory, which talks about shame as a silent epidemic, and something each of us experiences. Shame is associated with depression, anxiety, grief, eating disorders and even addictions and violence.
The Shame Resilience Theory is a theory grounded in and based upon building resilience to shame by helping us connect with our authentic selves and grow meaningful relationships with others.
Lastly, Brown states that we are often our own worst critics. We talk to ourselves in ways that we would never speak to someone else. With self-compassion, we can learn to understand and calm our inner critic, which is key to living a brave life.
Christopher Germer on Self-Compassion
Christopher Germer Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, a practicing meditator as well as an author and a teacher of mindfulness and compassion.
Germer is also a part-time lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Germer also partnered with Kristin Neff to co-create the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program.
Dr. Germer’s main focus and interests are on self-compassion, which he refers to as “that warmhearted attitude of mindfulness when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate.”
Germer came across the idea of self-compassion in 2005 as a solution for his long-term struggle with public speaking anxiety.
In addition to partnering with Neff on the workbook, he also established the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at the Cambridge Health Alliance in 2015. Germer is on the faculty at Cambridge and serves as a senior advisor and consultant. Germer is also researching a protocol for using self-compassion to treat chronic pain.
Compassion, according to Germer, has to do with the desire to alleviate suffering in someone else, where self-compassion is basically the compassion you have toward yourself.
Self-compassion means treating yourself with the same understanding and kindness that you would treat someone you truly love. Germer also talks about the difference between mindfulness and self-compassion.
Mindfulness, according to Germer, is more about the moment-by-moment experience. Compassion, on the other hand, is more about that inner relationship we have with our sense of self.
Germer’s experience as a therapist recently taught him that it is just as important to offer self-compassion to yourself as it is to offer it to your clients. Germer also suggests that the development of self-compassion may very well be the invisible mechanism that helps determine whether therapy sticks and transforms a life or not.
Paul Gilbert’s Work on the Topic
Paul Gilbert is the founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation. Gilbert is an internationally recognized researcher, speaker, and trainer. The Foundation supports global academic research and helps bring together leaders in the field.
The Compassionate Mind Foundation promotes wellbeing by facilitating scientific understanding and the application of compassion. It also utilizes compassion focused therapy literature as well as compassionate mind theory.
According to Gilbert’s work on compassion, the core of compassion is courage, rather than kindness. The courage to be compassionate lies in one’s willingness to see into the nature and the cause of suffering, whether that suffering is within oneself, or within others.
Gilbert believes that compassion is one of the most important declarations of strength and courage known to humanity. Compassion is difficult and powerful, while also being infectious and influential and is a universally recognized motivation that has the ability to change the world.
The guiding principle for the foundation is the idea that our human potential for love, altruism, creativity, and compassion and also for selfishness, cruelty, and vengeance are all tied together and linked to the way our brains have evolved over time in order to survive.
Modern research is just beginning to illuminate the genetic basis of all of these unique dispositions in terms of how they support social relationships, from the cradle to the grave.
These dispositions also shape our brains and value systems, and thus the disposition to create different patterns of activity in our brains.
The more we seek to understand these processes the more we can understand how different patterns in our minds are created.
The Work of Kristen Neff
Dr. Kristen Neff’s work is recognized all around the world.
Her work on self-compassion makes her an expert in the field. She was one of the very first researchers to define and measure self-compassion.
In addition to Dr. Neff’s work and research on self-compassion, she has also created a program to teach self-compassion to others. The workbook, the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) workbook and training was co-created by Dr. Neff and Dr. Chris Germer.
Dr. Neff’s work on self-compassion is groundbreaking. She believes that having compassion for yourself is really no different than having compassion for others.
Instead of continually judging and criticizing yourself for all of your inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion allows you to be kinder and gentler to yourself.
Having self-compassion, according to Dr. Neff, is not about trying to be perfect. It’s about being kind and understanding, even when faced with personal failings.
Self-compassion is not about self-judgment either, it’s about developing a sense of warmth and compassion in everything you do. When you are self-compassionate, you recognize your own failures and shortcomings as something that is inevitable and as something you can accept with love and kindness.
Self-compassion also allows you to see that all humans suffer. The very definition of being human means we are vulnerable, imperfect and mortal. Self-compassion comes into play when we are able to recognize this as a shared human experience.
Neff’s work also involves the idea of mindfulness, rather than over-identification. Mindfulness allows us to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity.
As we examine ourselves with an open and receptive mind, we create more internal balance.
Misconceptions about the Self-Compassionate Voice
What comes to mind when you think about “cultivating a self-compassionate inner voice”?
Many associate these words with selfishness, excessive optimism, self-pity, and passivity. In today’s modern world, where perfectionism is often the norm, being kind to oneself can feel unnatural and trigger negative beliefs. However, scientific research provides a different perspective on these misconceptions:
While self-compassion is sometimes mistaken for selfishness, studies by Marshall and colleagues (2020) demonstrate that higher levels of self-compassion are linked to more generous behaviors and attitudes. By treating ourselves with kindness, we achieve inner balance, enabling us to better attend to the needs of others.
A self-compassionate inner voice is often misinterpreted as an overly optimistic or unrealistic view of oneself. Conversely, according to Neff (2011), the curious and supportive tone of self-compassion allows us to acknowledge and accept our weaknesses while providing constructive feedback for self-improvement.
The self-compassionate voice is occasionally confused with self-pity. However, Neff and colleagues (2005) suggest that higher levels of self-compassion are associated with a motivated mindset focused on mastery, characterized by curiosity and a desire to develop skills, rather than a performance-oriented motivation centered on defending or enhancing one’s self-worth.
A self-compassionate inner voice is often wrongly assumed to encourage passivity. However, as research indicates, self-compassion is linked to high levels of mastery-oriented motivation, resulting in less procrastination and a greater investment of time in self-improvement (Breines & Chen, 2012).
Key Self-Compassion Articles
Dr. Neff has written many articles on self-compassion, including:
1. Why women need fierce self-compassion
Neff talks about how important it is for women to have fierce self-compassion in this article. According to Neff, women should embrace and integrate both tenderness and self-compassion in order to free themselves from patriarchy.
2. Embracing our common humanity with self-compassion
In this article, Neff talks about the idea of embracing our common humanity with self-compassion. The literal definition of compassion means to suffer within. This implies a basic mutuality in the suffering experience.
It’s important to remember that feelings of inadequacy and suffering are universal, and something that is a shared experience. The recognition of this shared experience helps us be more understanding and less judgmental when it comes to our inadequacies.
3. Self-appreciation: the flip side of self-compassion
Many people find it difficult to focus on their positive traits. The question is why? Praise and compliments should be something we are happy to receive, but many of us find accepting praise uncomfortable. In this article, Neff talks about how important it is to get to a place where we can celebrate our admirable qualities in a healthy way.
4. The physiology of self-compassion
The physiology of self-compassion focuses on research that shows that people who are self-compassionate are less likely to be depressed, anxious and stressed. As a result, they are more likely to be happy, resilient and optimistic about the future. In the end, those who are self-compassionate experience better mental health.
5. Why self-compassion beats self-confidence
According to the New York Times, self-compassion also beats self-confidence as seen in the article: Why Self-Compassion Beats Self-Confidence.
While we live in a world that reveres the idea of self-confidence and self-assuredness, the idea of self-compassion is a much better approach. Eric Barker, who wrote the book “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” talks about the idea that the culture of productivity we live in often encourages a fake sense of confidence without considering or looking at the drawbacks. Barker believes faking self-confidence may lead to overconfidence, which is the opposite of self-compassion.
According to Kristen Neff, many people think self-compassion is weak when it is really just the opposite.
One example of this is shown in a study written up in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, where subjects were videotaped while describing themselves.
The subjects were told they would be rated on things like likability, friendliness, and intelligence. Those with high levels of self-esteem often had emotional responses that were negative when it came to neutral or non-exceptional feedback. These same subjects also had a tendency to blame ratings that were unexceptional on factors outside themselves.
These studies suggest that self-compassion attenuates our reactions to negative events in ways that are more beneficial than self-esteem.
6. The transformative effects of mindful self-compassion
The article “The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion” is another great article, written by Dr. Kristen Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer.
The authors talk about how self-kindness, recognition of our own humanity and mindfulness can give us the strength to thrive. Dr. Neff refers to her own personal experience with self-compassion when she talks about her son’s diagnosis of autism and how self-compassion helped her get through it. Being mindful of our own struggles can help us respond to ourselves with kindness and support.
Journals on Self-Compassion
Try out these journals to expand your self-compassion knowledge.
1. The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength and Thrive
By Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer
This science-based workbook offers a step-by-step approach to breaking free of self-criticism and self-judgment. The workbook also has meditations and practices that are simple and easy to do.
Dr. Neff encourages the use of a Self-Compassion Journal. A self-compassion journal is a great tool for expressing emotions and enhancing your physical and mental wellbeing.
Neff encourages people to make time for the practice of journaling. By journaling, you can take the time to record the day’s events as well as anytime you judged yourself harshly, felt bad about something or had a difficult experience.
Neff’s self-compassion journal includes 3 areas of awareness:
By journaling about and examining these things, you can better reflect on why the idea of self-compassion is important for you.
2. My Self-Compassion Journal: Cultivating Love & Kindness for Myself
Self-compassion has much potential far beyond merely being kind to yourself. It has the ability to increase motivation, can help you face roadblocks and obstacles in a healthier way and help you embrace your common humanity.
Those with self-compassion are less likely to be critical of themselves and less likely to be depressed or anxious.
Self-compassion isn’t self-indulgent or narcissistic in any way, according to Neff, and it may very well be something that can heal the world and bring us a greater sense of peace within.
Allen, A. B., & Leary, M. R. (2010). Self-Compassion, Stress, and Coping. Social and personality psychology compass, 4(2), 107–118.
Brave Therapy. (2016, May 23). Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff & Brené Brown. Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://bravetherapy.com/self-compassion-with-kristin-neff-brene-brown/
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143.
Get Help. (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/self-compassion
Henry, W. P., Schacht, T. E., & Strupp, H. H. (1990). Patient and therapist introject, interpersonal process, and differential psychotherapy outcome. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 58(6), 768.
Hermanto, N., & Zuroff, D. C. (2018). Experimentally enhancing self-compassion: Moderating effects of trait care-seeking and perceived stress. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(6), 617-626.
Marshall, S. L., Ciarrochi, J., Parker, P. D., & Sahdra, B. K. (2020). Is self‐compassion selfish? The development of self‐compassion, empathy, and prosocial behavior in adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 30, 472-484.
Mattering and Positive Psychology. (2018, June 08). Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128094150000074
Mindful.org (2019, January 29). The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion. Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.mindful.org/the-transformative-effects-of-mindful-self-compassion/
Mindful Self-Compassion and Psychotherapy. (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://chrisgermer.com/
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self‐compassion, self‐esteem, and well‐being. Social and personality psychology compass, 5(1), 1-12.
Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and identity, 4(3), 263-287.
Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139–154.
Research. (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://brenebrown.com/the-research/
S. (2019). Dictionary of Sport Psychology. Academic Press. Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978012813150300019X
Self-Compassion. (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/self-compassion
Self-Compassion.org (n.d.). About Dr. Kristin Neff, Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://self-compassion.org/about/
Stevens, L., Gauthier-Braham, & M., Bush, B. (2018). The Brain That Longs to Care for Itself: The Current Neuroscience of Self-Compassion. Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128098370000040
Wong, K. (2017). Why Self-Compassion Beats Self-Confidence. Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/smarter-living/why-self-compassion-beats-self-confidence.html
About the author
Leslie Riopel, MSc., is Professor of Psychology at Northwood University. She writes on a wide range of topics at PositivePsychology.com and does research into mindfulness and meditation. Leslie’s unique blend of experiences in both real estate & psychology has allowed her to focus on fostering healthy workplaces that thrive.