What We’ve Got Wrong About Self-Compassion

Iris Cai
Published in
5 min readMar 7, 2021
Photo by Marco Montalti

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum¹.

Rather than disguising an object’s brokenness and the repair process, kintsugi embraces the beauty of its imperfection by highlighting its fault lines with beautiful veins of gold, as seen in the photo above.

Kintsugi also embodies a philosophy that sees the brokenness and the repair process of an object to be part of its history, both literally and metaphorically.

Life can be full of difficult events that either challenge us and reveal our flaws. It is when times are hard that we most want to feel understood, seen, appreciated, or nurtured. However, we don’t always get that. We can feel alone with our struggles, with our tribe nowhere to be seen, our voice unheard, our character unappreciated. I’ve learned that much of what we try to get from others, but may leave us feeling empty, are in fact gifts we should learn to give to ourselves.

Self-compassion can be such a gift that we can learn to give to ourselves when we see the imperfection in ourselves and our lives.

Have you ever been so hopelessly in love with someone? It can be romantic love, sibling love, love for one’s children… You may know all about this person’s flaws and failings. But you love them anyway. In fact, it may as well be because of their flaws and failings that you find them real, human, and therefore, endearing. You don’t need them to do anything to earn your love. You accept them fully.

Self-compassion is about turning that kind of unconditional love and acceptance to yourself. You don’t have to be constantly “improving” yourself. You are enough.

According to the world’s leading expert on self-compassion, Kristin Neff, compassion towards ourselves means being kind and understanding to ourselves when we experience failures, hardships, or when we notice our inadequacies².

Scientists have discovered many psychological and physiological benefits self-compassion has that can help us survive and thrive during difficult times.

Self-compassion has been found to be linked to reductions in conditions such as depression, stress, perfectionism, shame, performance anxiety, disordered eating, and chronic pain³. For example, soldiers who are self-compassionate are much less likely to suffer from PTSD. Self-compassion is also found to be linked to increases in life satisfaction, self-confidence, hope, and immune function³.

Self-compassion not only gives us strength and increases our motivation, but it can also make us better partners for our loved ones because it helps us become more caring, supportive, and less controlling³.

Without truly understanding the depth of its meaning, self-compassion can be easily dismissed as just another self-help buzzword. You may ask, “Why should I be easy on myself when I’m supposed to get out of my comfort zone?” “Shouldn’t I be critical of myself so I can motivate myself to do better?”

Self-compassion is not self-indulgence

Self-compassion is not about being in denial of the mistakes you make. It doesn’t mean inaction or lowering our standards for ourselves. It is about the dialogue and relationship we have with ourselves when hardships hit.

Self-compassion embodies a relationship with oneself that is both nurturing and empowering.

When we show ourselves self-compassion, we tap into the mammalian caregiving system of our brain³. A brief exercise of visualizing the image of someone providing unconditional acceptance and love to oneself has been found to lower people’s stress hormone cortisol and increase their heart-rate variability, which is linked to the greater capacity to soothe oneself when stressed⁵.

On the other hand, when we criticize ourselves, we tap into our reptilian brain³, our body’s threat system associated with feelings such as insecurity and defensiveness. And because we are under attack, our body unleashes stress hormone cortisol and adrenalin³.

Self-compassion is not weakness or inaction

According to Neff³, there is a “yin and yang” of self-compassion.

Yin refers to being with ourselves compassionately by comforting ourselves and acknowledging our imperfection. It can mean asking for help rather than trying to pretend we can do everything. It can mean taking a break so the much-needed retreat into ourselves can replenish us and help us get back into action.

The yang of self-compassion represents a kind of energy that is more empowering. It can manifest itself as protecting, providing, and motivating ourselves³. It can mean speaking up when you realized you’ve been spoken over, saying no to what no longer serves you, or pursuing what you’ve always wanted.

Self-compassion is life-affirming. Its yin shields our failures and flaws from impacting our sense of self-worth. Its yang gives us strengths, allowing us to take risks that align with what we truly want³.

Now that we know self-compassion is great for us, let’s discuss why it is so hard to practice.

If you are someone who has trouble being kind to yourself, you may agree that the feeling of not being good enough, or not having done enough, often dominates your thoughts.

Why is that?

Over thousands of years, our society has developed many systems and tools to measure and promote the attainment of goals and high performance. Standardized tests like the SAT help determine whether you get into a good college. Results at work are quantified (and if you have worked where I used to work, bell-curved), which determines whether you get a promotion or a raise. The saying, “what gets measured gets done” is often true.

Although these systems and tools do move us forward, what society doesn’t talk about, measure, or openly value enough, is the innate good that we all possess — our character.

The tenacity you must possess when you struggle through school with ADHD, depression, and anxiety. The sense of adventure you must have when you move across the Pacific Ocean to study what you love. The kindness that shines through when you give to others while not having a lot for yourself.

It is not like character doesn’t get talked about at all. It’s just that this often comes up only after people have accomplished something — as if our character is not worth mentioning unless it’s endorsed by our accomplishments. When our character is so often overshadowed by accomplishments, our assessment of worth and acceptance of ourselves continues to fluctuate and remains dependent on achievements.

Remember the person I asked you to think of earlier, whom you love and accept unconditionally? Substitute that person with yourself and apply to yourself the same kind of nurturing and acceptance you would to them. Embrace your brokenness and inadequacies. May self-compassion be the golden filigree that restores you and reminds you that you are unique, strong, and whole.

Get in touch

Please reach out to me if you’d like to support on cultivating self-compassion or have questions or comments on the topic.

Related posts on how to cultivate self-compassion:

Storyteller, changemaker, workplace well-being consultant, leadership and flourishing coach with a master in positive psychology, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives. Connect with me here or via LinkedIn.

Originally published at http://iriscai.com on March 7, 2021.



Iris Cai

Changemaker, storyteller, & positive psychology nerd, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives.