Warm photo of a dandelion, reminding us that one of the answer's to the question of "what is self-compassion" is warmth for ourselves.

What is Self-Compassion? 3 Basic Steps to Help

In Education, Emotional Health, Mental Health, Self-Care by Courtney Archer4 Comments

What is self-compassion? In a sentence, self-compassion is the antitheses to self-criticism. It is choosing to respond to difficulty with understanding and love, rather than negativity and self-loathing.

We grow and live in a world that demands perfection, but the world does not often demand it as harshly of ourselves as we do. When we do something incorrectly it is far more natural to criticize and blame than to kindly examine and rebuild.

You might even be starting to feel guilty while reading this for not being more kind to yourself. Ironic, isn’t it? Self-criticism is second nature.

Or rather, self-criticism is first nature. It is so built into us that self-compassion becomes something radical, a rebellious act so counter-intuitive that it has to be done with intention. That is why thousands of people are asking the question, “What is self-compassion?”

It is not a surprise that people do not understand what self-compassion is, let alone how to do it. You are not the first to seek an answer to these questions, and you will not be the last.

But after reading this article, you will have enough answers to set you down a path of understanding. Self-compassion is a priceless gift, and you are the only one who can give it to yourself. Let’s discuss how shall we?

what is self-compassion

What is Self-Compassion? A Priceless Gift

Definition of Self-Compassion

Our discussion of the question, “what is self-compassion,” naturally begins with the definition of it. If the definition of compassion is sympathy for others and a desire to help, then it follows that the definition of self-compassion is sympathy for and a desire to help ourselves.

Self-compassion should not be confused with selfish self-interest or ego. It is not motivated by a desire to get ahead, but rather a desire to move forward–to allow for growth and love to exist in the same space.

A person guided by self-compassion is not self-interested, but rather self-aware. Not only that, but accepting of the self exactly as you are today, were yesterday, and can be tomorrow.

After all, each version of ourselves (who you are today, who you were yesterday, and who you will be tomorrow) is surely capable of making mistakes and of growing beyond those mistakes. The difference between each version of ourselves is merely time, which gives us experience.

As long as we are capable of learning from our experiences, we are capable of growth. We have several options for ways to learn from our experiences, and they all generally fall either under the umbrella of self-criticism or self-compassion.

We can criticize and deride, telling ourselves how ignorant and blind we are to have made a mistake. We can tell ourselves that of course, we failed because that is what failures do and failures are what we are.

We can, and we do. Often these are the routes that are chosen, worn in like the ancient roads of Rome that still bear the marks of the carts that passed over them.

However, we have other options. We can give ourselves some space to live, to value our steps into the unknown even if they did not take us where we wanted to go. We can respond to our shortcomings with grace instead of a harsh reprimand, with warmth instead of cold apathy.

The meaning of self-compassion is to respond to ourselves with sympathy, and with the desire to help instead of hurt.

what is self-compassion photo of a dandelion

How to Respond With Compassion Instead of Criticism

So far this all probably sounds perfectly nice, and also perfectly daydreamy. Self-compassion is fine for little things, like forgetting to bring a pen to a class or meeting, but the real world requires thick skin and grit to get by. Doesn’t it?

You are not wrong. Life does require a certain degree of grit to get by. Survival often depends on our ability to shoulder heavy burdens and keep going despite considerable obstacles.

However, that does not mean that self-compassion does not have a place right alongside grit in your skillset for dealing with heavy burdens.

Below are three scenarios that I would like you to visualize for yourself:

  1. You miss an important deadline for a project that you have put a lot of time and effort into. Cursing yourself, you go over every other time that you have failed and ask yourself why you ever thought you could succeed with something so important. Telling yourself that you are stupid and lazy with terrible time management, you berate yourself for every shortcoming you have.
  2. You miss an important deadline for a project that you have put a lot of time and effort into. Rolling your eyes, you tell yourself it wasn’t that important anyway, and besides–Bob always misses his deadlines too. You shrug this shortcoming off and don’t take any responsibility, insisting that it wasn’t that big of a deal.
  3. You miss an important deadline for a project that you have put a lot of time and effort into. Giving yourself permission to be a human who makes mistakes, as all other humans do, you allow yourself to feel what you feel. You allow yourself to acknowledge your shortcoming and your humanity.

As you visualized each scenario, which one felt more motivating? Does telling yourself that you are a stupid, lazy failure make you feel like you are able to succeed? It might make you wish you could be better, but does it make you feel like you actually could be?

The problem with self-criticism is that we believe the thoughts we think. The more we think about how stupid or unacceptable we are, the more we come to believe it is true. Beliefs like that do not move people forward.

They might give you some motivation for a bit, but eventually they will lead you down the path of apathy because trying is pointless when you are a failure.

When confronted with this reality, people often respond with thoughts like, “well if I just let myself off the hook then I will never accomplish anything.” The thing is, the second scenario is not self-compassion either. It is not compassionate to yourself or anyone else to convince yourself that you do not care and that your goals do not matter. The answer to “What is self-compassion?” is not giving yourself an easy pass.

Allowing yourself to have goals and to fall short sometimes is different from that. It gives you the space to figure out what went wrong without falling apart. It gives you the opportunity to learn without beating yourself down into the ground.

Being compassionate toward yourself does not take away your accountability, it enables you to be accountable in the truest form. Without hatred toward yourself or anyone else, you can own your shortcomings and move forward.

Photo of a dandelion against a blue sky.

How to Have Self-Compassion Step 1: Take Note of Your Inner Critic

Asking “What is self-compassion?” is the real first step, but you have clearly already figured that much out. So let’s proceed to the first step for people who are ready to put some action into being more compassionate, shall we?

Taking note of your inner critic might seem a little counter-intuitive as the first step in developing self-compassion. In order to start being more kind to ourselves, it is helpful to notice when and how we are being unkind.

For example, you might be able to brush burning dinner off your shoulders without a second thought, but harshly berate yourself whenever you get out the door late. Knowing when you are not likely to respond to yourself with compassion helps you be more prepared to respond differently when it happens.

Try being more aware for a few days of which situations you respond to in which ways. It is helpful to keep track in a notebook or with your phone so that you can begin noticing patterns.

what is self-compassion photo of multiple dandelions

How to Have Self-Compassion Step 2: Find Some Replacement Responses

Once you have started finding patterns in times and types of responses that are not compassionate, the next step is to begin figuring out some alternatives. Often the knee jerk response is to come up with something completely opposite.

For example, someone who responds to a mistake with “I’m so stupid,” might flip to the opposite, “I’m a genius.” That is not the goal here.

Rather than just flipping to the opposite side of the spectrum, try to think of something that humanizes your mistake. Compassion is not about empty praise or blindness to faults. It is about sensing pain and responding to pain in a way that is caring and kind, rather than abrasive and demeaning.

For example, instead of responding with “I’m so stupid,” you might try, “I have made a mistake.”

Underwhelmed? Yeah. It is not a love letter to yourself, it is a response that allows you to move forward.

Calling yourself stupid does not give you much room to grow. If you are stupid, well, there is not much you can do about that, is there? However, making a mistake and then naming it for what it was–a mistake–gives you the power to see things for what they are.

You can even take it a step further, modifying your response to, “I have made a mistake, which I am allowed to do.” Giving yourself permission to be imperfect goes so much further than forcing perfection.

Forcing perfection very naturally leads to repeated feelings of failure because perfection is not sustainable. Eventually, you will make a mistake and your perfection will be broken.

On the flipside, allowing yourself to imperfect enables you to see where you can grow. It removes much of the fear of failure because you know it is inevitable. Failure is not such a bad thing when it is viewed as an inherent step that must be taken to achieve your goals.

Find yourself some replacement phrases and thoughts that allow you to make mistakes, to fail.

Photo of a dandelion against a blurred green background.

How to Have Self-Compassion Step 3: Practice

Once you have found yourself some self-compassion statements, start using them. If you fall back into your self-critical patterns, that is okay! It is expected–most people have been self-critical for a very long time (like, for their whole lives).

Change takes practice, and practice takes repetition. When you find yourself responding with harsh criticism, take note, and change your narrative.

The best replacement phrases and thoughts are the ones that you believe when you say them. That is why phrases like, “I’m a genius,” probably will not work when you are disappointed or feeling down. You are not likely to believe it in a negative emotional state.

“I’m allowed to make mistakes,” is much more believable and therefore repeatable. If that is too much, you might try something with a bit of humor, “one mistake down at least three more to go.”

As you practice, it is essential to remember that you are not letting yourself off easy. You are giving yourself permission to make mistakes as you pursue your goals. You are giving yourself the space you need to actually grow and improve.

what is self-compassion photo of a seeded dandelion

Self-Compassion Examples

Sometimes the best answer to the question of “What is self-compassion,” is an example or two. So without any further adieu, here are some examples.

  • Self-Compassion Examples #1: Mary goes to the grocery store and realizes when she is in the checkout line that she has forgotten her wallet.
    • Critical Response: Mary thinks, “How could I have forgotten my wallet? I’m such an idiot. I never do anything right. I drove all the way here, loaded up my cart, and now I look like such a fool in front of everyone else in line.”
    • Complacent Response: Mary thinks, “Of course I forgot my wallet. It’s all John’s fault–he knew I was coming here. He should have reminded me to bring my wallet.”
    • Compassionate Response: Mary thinks, “Naturally I forgot my wallet, it makes sense given the two hours of sleep I got last night. Tonight I’m going to go to bed on time, but right now I need to figure out a way to pay for these groceries.”
  • Self-Compassion Examples #2: Gerald wakes up and realizes it is an hour past when his alarm was supposed to go off.
    • Critical Response: Gerald thinks, “I can’t believe my lazy self slept past my alarm! I am the most irresponsible person I know. How did I ever get this far in life when I can’t even wake up to an alarm?”
    • Complacent Response: Gerald thinks, “What’s the point in getting out of bed anyway? It’s not like I have anything that important to do. I’ll just call in sick to work.”
    • Compassionate Response: Gerald thinks, “Oh man, I wish I didn’t sleep past my alarm, I have a lot to do today. I’m not the first person to have slept past my alarm though, I just need to figure out how to make things okay with my supervisor.”
  • Self-Compassion Examples #3: Leah gets in a fight with her sister and regrets some of the cutting things she said.
    • Critical Response: Leah thinks, “I’m the worst sister in the world. I don’t know why anyone loves me, I just hurt everyone I love.”
    • Complacent Response: Leah thinks, “My sister said some really awful things too. I can’t believe she spoke to me like that. It isn’t my fault if the truth hurts.”
    • Compassionate Response: Leah thinks, “I was in a really bad place when I said those things. Most people don’t handle things very well when they’re as stressed as I was when I was talking with my sister. I feel bad that I hurt her feelings, which is a normal response to this situation, and there’s something I can do about it.”

Do you see the difference between critical, complacent, and compassionate? Critical responses place the blame entirely on oneself, while complacent responses often shift the blame or responsibility elsewhere. Neither gives you a way to move forward or grow.

Compassion, on the other hand, takes responsibility where responsibility is due, validates the emotional response, and gives you a chance to learn from the experience in a way that does not damage your sense of self.

Photo of a dandelion bouquet.

In Conclusion

What is self-compassion? It is being able to see your pain and responding to it with a caring desire to alleviate it.

Self-compassion does not hold you back. In fact, it allows you to grow better than any other response can. It allows you to be a human experiencing life and learning from it.

Making an effort to recognize when you are not being compassionate allows you to change your response. Practicing new responses takes time, and you may revert back to self-criticism from time to time. Be patient with yourself as you give yourself room to grow.

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