While most of us have positive responses to the idea of having compassion for others, we often balk at self-compassion, believing that it is narcissistic, harmful or indulgent. Researcher Kristen Neff has devoted her professional life to proving that in addition to improving one’s well-being, self-compassion actually leads to more caring and supportive actions towards others. In a recent article, she summarizes current studies that validate her claim. Dr. Neff defines self-compassion as being aware of our current inner experience with warmth and tenderness, particularly when we are feeling painful emotions. Self-compassionate people are aware of our common humanity, and the fact that life presents difficulties to everyone. Feeling alone in our pain only makes it worse. Responding to our inner world tenderly actually helps build our own resources, so we are better able to meet the needs of others in addition to our own. Dr. Neff has identified the following myths that inhibit the development of self-compassion.
1. Self-Compassion is a form of self-pity. Many folks fear that being compassionate towards oneself will lead to feeling sorry for oneself. Actually, studies have proven the opposite. Self-compassionate people are less likely to wallow in self-pity, and this leads to a lower level of anxiety and depression. Being compassionate to ourselves seems to make us more willing to accept, experience and acknowledge difficult feelings with kindness. And this helps us to process what has happened and let it go more fully.
2. Self-compassion is a sign of weakness. In a recent study of recently separated adults, those who displayed more self-compassion in describing their experience had a better adjustment. These results were true even disregarding differing levels of self-esteem, depression and positivity. It seems as if it’s not the difficulties that life presents us, but how we react to ourselves when life becomes difficult—either kindly or harshly—that determines our ability to cope successfully.
3. Self-compassion will make me complacent. Some people fear that without the motivation of self-criticism we will be reduced to “slothful defeatism.” Think of trying to motivate a child this way—haranguing them about their mistakes in the hopes that this will make them more motivated to do better the next time. Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Actually, studies have found that self-compassion strengthens our accountability, and makes people be more likely to apologize for misdeeds than self-degradation.
4. Self-compassion is narcissistic. Narcissism is prioritizing our own needs and desires above others. It’s more than self-esteem on steroids; it is a dismissing other’s needs in order to meet our own needs at the expense of others. Self-compassion isn’t even an evaluation of our worth at all. It is a way of relating to our changing internal reality with kindness and acceptance, especially when we fail or feel inadequate. Self-compassionate people have been found to be more emotionally stable whether they received positive evaluation or not.
5. Self-compassion is selfish. If one thinks in a black-and-white manner, being kind to ourselves could be construed to mean that we have less to offer others. However, being good to ourselves actually helps us to be good to others, while being mean to ourselves only gets in the way. A recent study by Dr. Neff’s found that self-compassionate people were described by their partners as more caring and accepting, and their partners were more satisfied and securely attached to their relationship. It makes sense that if we meet our own needs compassionately, we have more resources to offer to others. Professional counselors who are more self-compassionate have lower levels of stress and burnout.
Rather than encouraging self-indulgence and apathy, compassion for ourselves actually opens our capacity for love, courage, and generosity. Being kind to ourselves isn’t a selfish luxury, but is a gift we can give ourselves that makes us, and others around us, happier.
To read Dr. Neff’s article in full, find it in the October 2015 edition of the Psychotherapy Networker.