Self-Compassion 101: What is it? How do you get it? Do you even want it?


“Enoughness is not a mountain. It is a mirage of a mountain. We do not need to climb it; we need to see through it.” – CLEO WADE


Anyone who has had therapy with me knows that I’m a big, big fan of self-compassion work. I like self-compassion work because it’s well researched, easy to learn and understand, it’s actionable, and it has demonstrated efficacy. Yet for all of its simplicity, it is profound and extremely challenging work. We’re going to dive in today with a quick overview of what I mean when I talk about self-compassion; why I’m such an evangelist about it; where you can start if you’d like to cultivate or enhance your own practice of self-compassion; and what to do if you’re stuck.


What is Self-Compassion?


Self-compassion means being kind, gentle, and curious with ourselves when we struggle, fail, or feel vulnerable or inadequate. Dr. Kristen Neff, the foremost expert on self-compassion, explains more about self-compassion in her video here:


Self-compassion is not self-love, and it’s not self-esteem, although it has some overlap with these concepts. It is also distinct from self-pity, though the two are often mistaken for the same thing. The literal definition of “compassion” is “to suffer with”. Self-compassion, then, can be understood as the refusal to abandon our most vulnerable selves; to stay present and open to even our most painful parts and experiences. When we become aware of our most tender parts, many of us try to distance ourselves from them through judgment, criticism, repression, and the fragmentation of the self. These psychological defenses are a way that we try to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable. However, far from protecting us, this type of self-abandonment can leave us feeling lost, confused, and stuck. While self-compassion invites curiosity and exploration, self-criticism shuts down the inquiry: if the problem is simply that we are defective, no further process of discovery is required.


Unlike self-esteem or self-love, self-compassion does not require you to believe any particular facts about yourself or your worth. Instead, self-compassion simply requires you to accept your own humanity, as universally flawed as it may be, and extend kindness to yourself on the basis of your human dignity alone, rather than any particular individual merit or achievement.


Why Should You Give This a Try?


Many people falsely believe that their unrelenting internal standards and negative self-talk are protecting them from failure or external criticism, and that these are motivational tools which spur them to new heights of success and accomplishment. Many of us were taught to think this way from a young age by our well-intentioned but incorrect (at best) parents, our educational system and/or our media.


Some people believe that their unrelenting standards are the only thing keeping them accountable, and the only thing standing between them and abject failure. If this is your perspective, you should know that the research actually suggests the opposite. In experimental paradigms, people in a “self-compassion” based feedback group outperformed the “self-esteem” and control groups on both motivation, effort, and achievement. Similarly, in a different series of studies, researchers found that people who were higher in self-compassion were more able to acknowledge mistakes, apologize, and make amends: they were more able to hold themselves accountable![1]


A harsh inner critic (whose voice may be implicit or explicit) is the mechanism by which many people attempt to hold themselves accountable to their aspirational standards. Like most psychological functions, our inner critic and the shame it generates play an important, functional role. An inner critic that is a healthy size might prompt us to reconsider our hurtful words to a friend and apologize; or identify where we could have worked harder or just differently on a project for a better outcome, helping us to do better next time around. But when the inner critic becomes overgrown, drowning out other, kinder voices within ourselves, it becomes counter-productive. It is very hard to hold yourself accountable when you have a harsh inner critic, because accepting that you screwed up means that you are exposed to a barrage of internal abuse and criticism and the accompanying shame; even a small mistake can become an existential threat. In fact, it is much more likely, under these circumstances, that we will deflect and deny any possible wrongdoing or failure, to defend ourselves against this internal onslaught and the accompanying shame. We might lash out and become excessively critical with those around us, rather than face this internal turmoil. Or, for some of us, we simply shut-down, and turn to ways of numbing out like mindless scrolling, binge-watching tv, workaholism, or substance use. An outsized inner critic, therefore, is actually more likely than not going to inhibit our ability to hold ourselves accountable and work towards our goals. Imagine you were working for an abusive and exacting boss. If that boss had noticed an error and was on a rampage through the office to assign blame, how likely would any of us be to step up and admit fault? How might that be different with a kinder, more supportive boss who simply said, “Someone made a mistake; let’s make a plan together to fix it and avoid repeating it the next time around.”?


It’s important to keep in mind that self-compassion is not the same as permission. Having compassion for the way I felt and behaved today and accepting the reality of any mistakes I made is not the same as giving myself permission to make those same mistakes tomorrow. In this respect, self-compassion works exactly the same way as regular compassion. Consider how we can have compassion for a person on trial for murder when we hear stories of their difficult circumstances; this is different from condoning or excusing the fact of the murder. We don’t have to choose between one or the other. We can condemn the wrongful act (the murder), and still have compassion for the human being.


In my view, one of the most important differences between self-compassion and self-criticism is that self-compassion is exponentially more useful when it comes to problem-solving. As I mentioned, self-compassion invites us to assume that when we are stuck or struggling, there is a valid reason for it. It is the beginning of the process of uncovering what the barriers are that we are facing, both internal and external, and working to shift those barriers or arrange for accommodations where we need them. If I’m having trouble getting started on a project, and my internal reasoning process explains this as being because I’m stupid or lazy, that’s the beginning and end of the analysis – I’m left with the pain of those beliefs, but no path forward.  But if I assume that I’m not stupid or lazy, it begs the question – what is holding me back? Am I overwhelmed with no time to sit down and focus? If so, what supports can I build in to re-prioritize my time to reflect the importance of this project? Or, am I afraid that I’ll fail at this project? If so, I can engage in a dialogue with that fear to keep it in perspective with my desire to do this project anyway. Is it an executive functioning issue? What structural supports can I put in place to overcome the executive functioning problem? (Stay tuned for more on Motivation vs Executive Functioning in an upcoming blog post in the New Year). When I approach the problem with self-compassion, I can see that my behaviour of failing to start the project may be counterproductive, but my sense of my own humanity and worthiness remains intact.


How Can You Improve Your Self-Compassion?


To paraphrase author and therapist KC Davis, “Nobody has ever shamed themselves into healing.” If you are consuming culture, content, relationships, or self-directed talk that tells you that you are lazy, unmotivated, or inadequate, start by changing these inputs. It’s very hard to foster a more compassionate relationship with your self when you’re exposed to this kind of messaging from any source, internal or external. This might be as simple as changing the shows you watch or who you follow on socials, or as challenging as taking a hard look at your boundaries and interpersonal relationships to create space from people whose outlooks are causing you harm (check out my upcoming blog post on Boundaries for more on this).


The first step towards developing greater self-compassion is to truly pay attention to your inner dialogue. Once you bring your awareness to how you talk to yourself, about yourself, you can start to understand how your self-talk is or is not contributing to your wellbeing and growth. After cultivating awareness of these processes, the next step is to create incremental change. Here is a simple and powerful exercise that you can try once you become consciously aware of your critical self-talk:


  1. Think of someone you cherish. This may be a beloved friend, your child, or another relative. Think about how you interact with them when they are struggling.
  2. When you notice that you are being harsh with yourself, run your self-talk through this test: Would I speak to my loved one this way?
  3. If the answer is no, that’s OK. This is a process. Don’t berate yourself for speaking negatively to yourself. That’s just trying to shame yourself out of shaming yourself. Instead, reframe the feedback you were giving yourself as if you were giving it to your loved one who is in the same situation. If it helps you, you can write out your original self-directed thought, as well as the reframe.
  4. Try to notice how each version of the statement feels, if you can. Which version makes you feel either motivated or stuck? Empowered or powerless? Validated or dismissed?


The beauty of this exercise and others that cultivate the practice of self-compassion is that, little by little, they help you to literally re-wire your brain, strengthening compassionate pathways of thought and weakening destructive, self-defeating pathways. In fact, you don’t even need to believe that the alternative, self-compassionate thoughts are true in order to begin to experience these benefits. Simply practicing to notice the destructive thinking and wonder if you might deserve to be treated a little bit better is a huge accomplishment for many of us. Much like weight training at the gym after a long absence, please expect that change will be incremental. This is normal.


Another simple tool for offering compassionate kindness to yourself is to sooth your physiology with physical touch. This might be as simple as putting a hand over your heart when you’re experiencing a painful emotion, saying to yourself, “Wow, that hurts.” This can be an important first step towards refusing to abandon your most tender parts.


If you find it challenging to exercise self-compassion at first, I have good news. Not only is that completely normal, it also gives you a fantastic place to start. You can start by taking a compassionate stance towards your complete lack of self-compassion! “It makes sense that this feels foreign to me. I was raised with a value system of tough love, and taught to believe that success means suppressing any weaknesses” or perhaps, “I watched how critical my mother was of herself, how she always had to do everything perfectly. No wonder I internalized some of her exacting standards,” or even, “I spent years in a marriage where it seemed I could never do anything right, no matter how hard I tried. No wonder I doubt my own worth.”  Some people also find it helpful to speak to themselves in the third-person when trying to shift their negative self-talk.



Final Thoughts on Self-Compassion


If you’ve read this post, and perhaps even tried some of these tools or suggestions, and you still feel like you’re miles away from a self-compassionate stance, don’t despair. When we’re young, we learn our sense of identity from how we are responded to by our caregivers. No matter how loving and well-intentioned they may have been, if your caregivers had an approach that was critical or harsh, or perhaps even abusive, you may have been learning to be critical of yourself for as long as you’ve been alive. Ditto if you come from a marginalized group and have experienced systemic oppression and discrimination. If you seriously struggle with self-compassion, this might simply mean that you need more relational healing before you can do this work. This means that you may need more opportunities to experience emotional pain, vulnerability, and imperfection in the safe presence of a compassionate other, before you can realistically learn to do this for yourself. Therapy is an excellent medium for you to receive this corrective relational experience. Please consider booking a consultation with me if this resonates with you; I can help.



Books and Resources to Promote Self-Compassion


  • The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control – Katherine Morgan Schafler
  • How to Keep House While Drowning – KC Davis
  • Real Self-Care – Pooja Lakshmin
  • Remember Love – Cleo Wade
  • The Science of Stuck – Britt Frank
  • Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself – Susan Pollack
  • Dr. Neff’s website also has many free resources to promote self-compassion, including educational videos, recordings of guided mindfulness exercises, and journaling exercises. You can find them here:


[1] This article also contains references to the research I referred to above:

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