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What is Self-Compassion?

Jonathan Riley

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive” – Dalai Lama

Research has shown that self-compassion is strongly linked to our mental health and well-being. Studies have found that those who are more compassionate towards themselves tend to have fewer mental health problems, like depression, anxiety and stress. People who have self-compassion also tend to have a better quality of life, a greater sense of well-being, and fewer problems in relationships.

Dr. Kristin Neff is an internationally renowned expert on self-compassion and according to her, self-compassion is treating yourself with the same care and kindness as you would a good friend. Neff discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism— a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame. Compassion is also linked to the hormone oxytocin, often called the “love” hormone. This is a hormone that promotes bonding and closeness. It is suggested that directing compassion inwards can equally trigger the release of oxytocin and the calming benefits it brings. In essence, self-compassion goes hand in hand with general life contentment.

Compassion is an attitude that involves a certain set of feelings, thoughts, motives, desires, urges, and behaviours that can be directed towards any living thing (i.e., ourselves, another person, a group of people, a society, animals, and the environment). Therefore, Self-compassion is simply compassion directed inward, relating to ourselves as the object of care and concern when faced with the experience of suffering. Similarly, Paul Gilbert defines compassion as: “a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it”.

When people are deeply rooted in shame, the idea of treating themselves with kindness can feel undeserved, uncomfortable, and even unnatural. According to Brene Brown “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

According to the Centre for Clinical Interventions self-compassion emphasises four key things:

1. Awareness. Being attentive or sensitive to the fact that some sort of ‘suffering’ is occurring. Suffering may refer to a distressing struggle with emotional, mental, or physical discomfort, or all of the above.

2. Normalising. Recognising that experiencing this sort of pain is universal, we all experience pain at some point to varying degrees. The fact that we experience pain isn’t a fault or failing of ours, we are not to blame for our pain, and we are not alone in our pain.

3. Kindness. Not shying away from or ignoring the pain, but meeting this pain with feelings of kindness, care, warmth and concern.

4. Alleviation. Focusing our energy on ways to alleviate the pain, which may be via providing further comfort and caring actions, providing a helpful perspective regarding whatever the trouble is, or having the strength and courage to take other necessary actions to address the problem being faced.

Self-compassion is about doing all of these four things for ourselves when we are struggling. That is, being aware of our own pain, whatever that may be. Understanding that whilst feeling this pain is hard, this is a normal human experience, not a failing on our part and we are not alone. It then involves directing feelings of kindness and care towards ourselves, just as we might to someone else we care about who is struggling. And finally, focusing our attention and energy on how we might improve our own pain and move through the struggle we are facing.

Being open to self-compassion involves actively recognising and accepting the hurts aroused from your past wounds–those that may contribute to the tendency toward shame. Develop greater inner compassion with yourself–being able to choose compassion as an alternative to cultivate a dialogue of increased self-acceptance of your humanity. This means recognising that, like all humans, you have flaws and weaknesses, make mistakes and suffer. We are not alone, even when we feel that we are.

Moving away from the language of shame and worthiness is challenging, especially if these are lifelong patterns of thought and action. Self-compassion is a radical act in a world where we’re taught that we’re not good enough and that emotional reactions to life’s circumstances are a reflection of weak character. Yet, with practice, self-compassion can fundamentally shift how you view yourself and others, leading to a place of quiet comfort, calm and acceptance.


Centre for Clinical Interventions. (n.d). Looking after yourself. Retrieved from

Golden, B. (2017, April 22). Overcoming the paralysis of toxic shame. Retrieved from

Hennig, S. (2018, November 29). Self-compassion will change your life for the better. Retrieved from

Neff, K. D. (2003a). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250