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

posted in: Self-compassion | 0

Self-compassion is very unpopular – mainly as many of us 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. 

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. But it turned out that I wasn’t actually practicing self-compassion. A’tall.

Another reason we have a dearth of self-compassion, aside from it’s unpopularity, is we ‘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.” As this is such a common mis-operationalision, this means I’m  frustrated/annoyed/irritated frequently.

And yes, I am making excellent progress with my frustration/annoyance/irritation issues. Thank you for asking.

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 struggle to offer compassion for pain

When we do that, we are typically attempting to fix people. We attempt to reassure people & make them feel better, rather than offering acceptance and compassion for their pain. The problem is that reassurance and rationalization (e.g. “you’ll be fine”, “it’s not that bad,” “I’m sure they didn’t mean it” etc.) are ineffective at best.

But attempts at reassurance are usually worse than ineffective. It 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 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.


noticing our difficult thoughts and feelings; not drowning in them and 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 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 …

Pregnant, scared and needing compassion

(n.b. Rachel is pregnant & scared she will be having her baby alone)

“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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