What is self-compassion?

When people speak of self-compassion, it can be fair to think that it sounds great in theory and is definitely important, but it is also hard to know how to put it into practice every day. When we give ourselves the same kindness and care we'd give a good friend, this is how we extend self-compassion to ourselves. In the context of a friend, this could involve noticing that our friend is suffering, feeling moved by their suffering, and responding with warmth, care and a desire to help. It can also mean extending understanding and kindness to our friend when they fail or make a mistake, rather than responding with harsh judgement. The realisation that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience can contribute to offering compassion for another when we notice they are experiencing it. Self-compassion is about treating yourself the same way when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something about yours elf you don't particularly like. It's about responding to these experiences and feelings with kindness and understanding rather than mercilessly judging and criticising yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings. Who said you were supposed to be perfect? Is anyone ever perfect? No, so the question is: why do you feel you should be? Extending self-compassion to yourself is an act of honouring and accepting your humanness.

Are you now wondering how self-compassionate you are? Take the evidence-based test and see:

The three elements of self-compassion:

  • 1)Self-kindness vs self-judgment

The very essence of being self-compassionate is practicing warmth and understanding toward ourselves, as oppose to self-criticism or anger, when we are experiencing life difficulties such as suffering, feelings of failure or inadequacy.

  • 2)Common humanity vs isolation

When we experience something difficult it can be common to feel that we are the only one going through this or the only one who is failing etc. This form of thinking can very much isolate us and add to an already troubling time. We are all "human" in that we are mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Self-compassion is about noticing the suffering and feelings of inadequacy and reminding ourselves that these experiences are part of the shared human experience. In other words, we are not alone.

  • 3)Mindfulness vs identification

Mindfulness, as it does in many situations, has a place in self-compassion too. When we are practicing self-compassion, it is important to be able to observe our thoughts and feelings as they are, without judgement and without trying to suppress or deny them. Self-compassion requires a balanced approach, we cannot feel compassion for ourselves if we ignore our pain.

Self-compassion is not:


Many of us who are beginning to practice self-compassion can feel a sense of uncomfortableness and have thoughts that we are becoming self-pitying. To be clear, self-compassion is not self-pity. When we self-pity we tend to emphasise egocentric feelings and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion on the other hand is a practice of noticing the links between experiences we have and the experiences of others as a means to avoid feelings of isolation and disconnection.


Often we can see being harsh with ourselves as self-motivation, and by being self-compassionate we may feel we are "letting ourselves go" or becoming self-indulgent. This couldn't be further from the truth. By caring for ourselves and extending warmth and kindness, this can provide a powerful motivating force for growth and change, as well as creating a feeling of safety for us to see ourselves clearly without fear of self-punishment.

Tips for practice:

Self-compassion is not a practice of controlling the way things are, it is a supportive stance on alleviating feelings of suffering. By denying the pain we are experiencing or trying to suppress it through use of self-compassion, we risk making things worse for ourselves.

Sometimes, through practicing self-compassion, we may feel our pain increase in the first instance; this is a very normal effect of self-compassion and has been termed "backdraft". Backdraft is a term that has its origins in firefighting, and describes the phenomenon of oxygen going in and flames rushing out when the door of a burning house is opened.

When put into context with self-compassion, it may be likely that we experience great pain when we extend kindness and love to ourselves, when in the past it has been denied or conditional. One saying that well describes this experience is: "when we give ourselves unconditional love, we discover the conditions under which we were unloved".

Keeping this in mind, when we begin learning to extend self-compassion we should be mindful of taking it slow, and when things do become overwhelming or difficult, perhaps it is the most self-compassionate response to notice and seek extra support with unpacking these feelings.

Guided practices and exercises


Image from Unsplash by Nick Fewings 

Visiting the Urgent Mental Health Care Centre

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