When Self Compassion is Hard
Self compassion is an integral part of holistic wellbeing. Studies have linked self compassion to overall psychological health, as well as to specific psychological strengths such as happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, positive body image, resiliency, and increased motivation for self-improvement. On top of this, self compassion has been found to play a positive role in relationships. Self compassionate people are more forgiving, supportive, and emotionally connected to others than those who are short on self compassion.
So what exactly is self compassion? Kristin Neff delineates three components of self compassion: Self kindness vs. self judgement, common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification. When we have self compassion, we are gentle, understanding, and supportive toward ourselves when we are hurting or we make a mistake; we don’t criticize or judge ourselves for those experiences. We recognize that pain and failure are an inevitable part of being human; we know we are not alone in the ways that we struggle and suffer. Finally, we can hold our thoughts and feelings in an open, receptive awareness; we don’t get swept up by them or push them away.
Experiencing self compassion has a soothing effect on the nervous system and is linked to what Paul Gilbert, the developer of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) calls the “soothing system” of emotion regulation. Gilbert suggests that we have three parts of the nervous system that use emotions in different ways to help us survive and thrive. The soothing system is focused on social connectedness and peacefulness. The other two emotion regulation systems, the threat system and the drive system, are focused on self-protection and striving respectively. When we experience consistent psychological distress, it becomes difficult to access the soothing system and we instead come to over-rely on the threat and drive systems to get through life. We are constantly looking to protect ourselves or to increase our status through achieving and consuming. We cycle through feeling afraid, angry, or disgusted, and then temporarily energized and excited when we succeed at something or get something we want. Rarely do we feel connected to others, contented, and calm. Practicing self compassion is the path out of this threat-drive loop and into the soothing system.
But sometimes practicing self compassion can be really difficult. The threat-drive loop feels familiar and activating the soothing system can be a foreign experience that bring ups resistance and difficult feelings. Some common blocks to experiencing self compassion include:
Feeling like you will become complacent or bad in some way if you stop being hard on yourself
Feeling like you don’t deserve self compassion
Receiving compassion from yourself or others feels too vulnerable or scary
All of these feelings are okay.
When self compassion is hard, there are a number of things you can try to move past the blocks you’re feeling. One is to work your way up to self compassion by first generating compassionate feelings for others. This strategy is kind of like a warm up. Since generating compassion for others might be easier than doing so for yourself, you ease into feeling compassion with an outward focus and then turn that feeling inward.
Another strategy is to try seeing yourself through the eyes of someone who cares about you. Sensing their warmth and care toward you can sometimes be easier than creating your own warmth and care toward yourself. This strategy takes you out of your head and opens up an alternative perspective. Noticing that someone else has compassion for you might help it feel okay to have compassion for yourself.
You can also try moving past your blocks to self compassion by exploring them. Often the beliefs and emotions that make it difficult to practice self compassion are a result of social conditioning and previous life experiences. Perfectionism is a big part of Western culture and can make us feel like mistake are not acceptable. As well, difficult relationships or interpersonal traumas can implicitly teach us that we aren’t deserving of compassion or that being loved comes with danger. See if you can identify the beliefs and emotions that make self compassion difficult for you and then ask yourself where those came from. Are they truly yours? Can you soften them just a little? What might be more true to believe or feel?
When people seek psychotherapy, they are often struggling with self compassion in one way or another. Because of this, deepening attitudes of self compassion is typically a part of therapy. In fact, increases in self compassion have consistently been linked to positive outcomes in therapy. If you’re struggling with self compassion, don’t be afraid to reach out for support. Therapy can be a good place to examine why self compassion is hard for you and to practice extending compassion toward yourself at a pace that feels safe.
Germer, C. & Neff, K. D. (2019). Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC). In I. Itvzan (Ed.) The
handbook of mindfulness-based programs: Every established intervention, from
medicine to education (pp. 357-367). London: Routledge.
Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric