Self-compassion: it’s unpopular & we’re doing it wrong!

posted in: Self-compassion | 0

Self-compassion is unpopular – mainly as many think it’s a demotivating weakness. Which is a shame. The clinical evidence suggests the exact opposite.

This short 17-minute video on self-compassion from Dr Kristin Neff is well worth a watch as – despite it’s unpopularity – self-compassion is trending. Probably because the evidence is compelling that self-compassion reduces anxiety, stress and depression, and – contrary to popular myth – actually boosts motivation as well as physical health. 

However, it turned out, I wasn’t practicing SELF-compassion at all. Recently I’ve deepened my own self-compassion practice & it’s helping a lot. This was after a painful failure helped me discover that while, intellectually, I was totally on board with self-compassion (and I’m quite good at ‘other-compassion’ after eight years volunteering as a Lifeline phone counselor), it turned out that I wasn’t actually practicing self-compassion. A’tall. And I didn’t even know it.

Another reason we have a dearth of self-compassion, aside from myths and misunderstandings, is we  often ‘mis-operationlize’ it. For example, I feel frustrated/annoyed/irritated whenever I hear the self-compassion mantra, “treat yourself as you would a good friend.”

The reason for my annoyance (aside from my demands that everyone agree with me) is that, with the best of intentions, we often don’t treat our friends compassionately.

We are uncomfortable with painful, socially un-sanctioned thoughts and emotions (such as anger, grief, sadness, stress, anxiety, depression, regret, jealousy and envy). This discomfort with uncomfortable emotions means we are as quick to dismiss and rationalize them in our friends as we are in ourselves.

We often say things in response to a friends distress, like; “You’ll be fine,” “You shouldn’t be anxious, ” You’ll find someone else,” “You’ll get over it,” etc. These things may be true, but it isn’t mindful or compassionate.

After I left my abusive husband, several people commented it was good I didn’t have a child with him. That was true. But is wasn’t a helpful thing to hear at a  time when I feared I’d never have a child of my own. A fear that came true.

One of many other examples is from my university days. There was a man who was a school principle in one of my post-grad courses. Everyone was required to give a presentation to the class. He was petrified at the prospect. Yet everyone – except me – was telling him that, as a principal, he’d be fine – after all he presented to his students and teachers all the time. They were telling him he was wrong to feel anxious, wrong to feel how he felt. So he felt guilty and confused about feeling anxious – was there something wrong with him?

I told him he was allowed to feel anxious – or any of his feelings. And – not that it mattered – but presenting at university was quite different from presenting at his school. He was so relived to have ‘permission’ to be anxious.

We struggle to offer compassion for pain. Most of us aren’t taught how to bring compassion to pain and suffering. And because discomfort makes us uncomfortable, we typically try to fix people. We attempt to reassure people & make them feel better, (e.g. “You’ll be fine”, “It’s not that bad,” “I’m sure they didn’t mean it” etc.)  rather than offering acceptance and compassion for their pain (e.g. “That sounds really painful/tough/confusing/sad etc.)

But attempts at reassurance are usually worse than ineffective. Reassurance is notably unreassuring. Worse –  so-called reassurance actually invalidates the person along with their feelings. I was lucky to have this ‘invalidating reassurance’ beaten out of me, in relation to other-compassion – but not self-compassion – during my Lifeline counselor training.

So if well intentioned reassurance isn’t self- or other-compassion, what IS? Well, based on much research, Kristen Neff proposes three ingredients:


– Bringing kindness (not reassurance) to ourselves in our moment of struggle. For example, telling ourselves such things as:   this is really hard, I’m really struggling right now, what do I need right now? may I be kind to myself.


– Remembering we are not alone in our struggles.


– A non-judgmental noticing of our difficult thoughts and feelings; not drowning in them but not the other extreme – ignoring or suppressing them. The latter predicts PTSD.

When we attempt to reassure people by rationalizing away their suffering, rather than sitting with it with mindful kindness, we are skipping all three ingredients of self-compassion.

I found a lovely example of how we can be so well-intentioned yet non-compassionate towards our friends in a book; specifically in ‘Saturday Night Live’ actor Rachel Dratch’s hilarious auto-bio, ‘A girl walks into a bar.’ Here the excerpt …

Rachel is pregnant, alone, scared and needing compassion

“I was going to see my friend Ricki to see a play, and as I started to walk, I had the nagging, tugging feeling I was going to cry. Not tears of joy. Not tears of “You did it! Good for you. What a big step!” Tears of straight-up fear. I was alone. I could be handling all these things alone. I didn’t know if I was up for the challenge. I felt a complete lack of confidence expand and take over. I didn’t cry, though. I got on the subway and met Ricki. We sat in our seats in the theater and waited for the lights to go down.

“How’d it go with David and Russell [at the dreaded baby store]”

“Good,” I said. “They were really helpful. But I feel like …”


“I feel like I might cry.”

And then I did. Sitting in the seat, surrounded by other theatergoers, I felt tears start to form in my eyes and run down my face.

“Ohhh.” Said Ricki, a mother of three kids with a fantastically helpful and supportive husband, “It’ll be OK.”

Something deep within me was telling me it would be OK, but for now this was Fear Day, and I guess I just had to let it happen. …

Want further reading? 

There are safe ways to process and release painful emotions – methods that are clinically proven to not only reduce psychological distress but to boost immunity and wound healing – important in the time of COVID, I think. You can read about this powerful and deceptively simple psychological technique here.  

Don’t waste this painful but useful emotion – we frequently deny having this emotion, which makes it hard to leverage its benefits.

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