What does it mean to have self-compassion?

For many years there has been something of a society-wide quest for high self-esteem. If we aren’t feeling great about ourselves then something is wrong… right? We all should feel great, attractive and successful, pretty much all of the time. But I know that I don’t feel great all of the time, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

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So what happens when we don’t reach our coveted goal, we don’t get that job we think we deserve, we put on weight, our relationship breaks down, or hardest of all, we are confronted with a life threatening illness?  In moments, situations, circumstances like these, self-esteem can drop us like a fair-weather friend, leaving us beating ourselves up, alone, frightened and staggering to pick up the pieces (believe me I know). The problem with self-esteem is that it is fleeting. It is hard to hold on to when times are tough. It sticks around only for the success, the good times and we all know that the good times and the successes can come and then go.


So what is the alternative? How can we sustain a sense of self worth that is more resilient, even amidst what can sometimes be a competitive culture? How can we feel good about ourselves even when we fail, fall or flounder?


A couple of years ago I began a journey to understand everything about self-compassion. And lately I’ve come to see it as one of the most sure-fire pathways to deep and resilient happiness. As I delved into researching, I loved coming across Dr Kristin Neff. I find her research very interesting as it suggests that the basis of self-compassion is really no different to being compassionate toward others.  And this gives us an important clue to developing self-compassion.


The word compassion literally means to “suffer with”. To have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. For example if a work colleague is crying with grief because his wife recently died and you ignore him, then you won’t know the difficulty he is going through.  Compassion has been defined as being moved by others who are suffering and involves an authentic desire to help. This means opening your heart to a person’s experience and offering understanding and kindness. It also means not judging, criticising or ridiculing someone who is struggling.  As Dr Neff says, when you feel compassion it means that “you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience”.


Self-compassion means acting in exactly the same accepting and empathic way towards yourself when you are going through hard times as you would when you are at your best with others. Yet for some reason people often find this harder. Often we shut down and ignore our pain when we are displeased with ourselves, or struggling with liking ourselves.  But if we can make the transition to self-compassion, then we can ask ourselves how we can best care for, comfort and console ourselves in this moment. We can recognise and acknowledge that we are going through something difficult. We can put aside self-judgment and criticisms about our own failings, faults and flaws. By being truly self-compassionate we put ourselves on the path toward deep and resilient happiness, making better choices and changes in ourselves to help us to reach our full potential.


If you are interested in Dr Kristin Neff you will find more here http://self-compassion.org/