The Foundation of True Self-Care Is Self-Compassion

We sometimes use “self-care” as a proxy for “self-compassion,” but they’re actually very different concepts.

Self-compassion permeates our work here. It’s not some special icing on the flourishing cake we’re cooking — it’s an essential ingredient. While you may be able to succeed without self-compassion for a while, you won’t thrive. At some point, the harm, suffering, pain, or neglect you put yourself through will catch up with you. The bill always comes due.

We sometimes use “self-care” as a proxy for “self-compassion.” But they’re actually different concepts. Self-compassion is regarding yourself compassionately. Self-care, by contrast, is treating yourself compassionately. The two terms sound interchangeable, but they contain a thinking versus doing distinction.

This is important because people can go through the motions of self-care without having self-compassion. Similarly, they can view themselves compassionately and still not take care of themselves. The two concepts, though, need to work together. Self-care without self-compassion discharges a debt, usually with suffering somewhere else. Self-care with self-compassion is a gift that doesn’t have to be earned or repaid.

We Need Self-Compassion

And we need self-compassion. It lets us flourish because it keeps us from assuming we’re superhumans or robots who can do far more than we’d expect anyone else to. Rarely do we look at someone who’s sick, injured, grieving, handling a crisis, or bitten off way more than they can chew and expect them to get it all done perfectly with a smile on their faces. Yet that’s exactly what we expect of ourselves when going through the same situations. Even when we can’t soldier on, we expect we should be able to.

Recently, I had to learn the distinction between self-care and self-compassion the hard way, dealing with a medical thing that caused a lot of pain, discomfort, fatigue, and debilitation. The morning focus blocks I loved, needed, and counted on had turned into a crap shoot. And of course this medical thing had happened at the worst time: It found me after setting up a major book deal, with all the necessary and negotiated deadlines. It not only took my focus blocks away from me but also added in work I would’ve rather not done, and required me to take a break for a needed minor surgery.

You’d think I wouldn’t struggle with self-compassion. After all, I gave it to myself when my wife and I were recovering from a car accident back in 2014. But giving self-compassion in the past is no assurance you or I will give it in the future. It can even be harder, because you know what you want to do, know how to do it, and have everything you need to get it done — minus the glaring roadblocks that stand in the way.

We Need Compassionate Self-Care

All that to say, my self-care has not always come from a place of self-compassion. I’ve gone through the motions, of course, but my self-care has often been accompanied by unnecessary grimacing, complaining, and shadow-making. It’s led to times of make-work, inbox processing, and mindless clicking when, if I were practicing self-compassion, I’d be semi-dozing in a recliner.

You see, self-compassion takes the pressure off. It accepts my demoralization, frustration, and melancholy and lessens all three. It helps me practice true self-care, getting out of or renegotiating commitments I can’t possibly finish right now.

Here’s how to practice self-compassion:

  1. Replace. Imagine someone you care deeply about, such as your four-year-old son, furry companion, or best friend. Now, insert that individual into whatever hardship you’re dealing with.
  2. Think. Ask what you’d expect of and from that person if they were in the situation you’re in.
  3. Encourage. Based on your answers, consider what you would encourage that person to do and what you would do for them if you could.
  4. Return. Put yourself back in the situation.
  5. Rebut. You’re probably hearing a bunch of “Yeah, buts” right now. Rebut all of that harsh head trash by thinking about what you’d say to a friend with a case of them. It’ll weaken the “Yeahbuts” power.
  6. Act. Take action on the things brainstormed in step 3.

Eventually, you won’t have to do the swapping in step 1. You’ll be able to accept being where you are and needing what you need aren’t matters of better than or less than — they just are. It’ll take practice; new difficulties, as my above situation illustrates, always do. Luckily, every day is a chance to practice.

You may not be able to change what you’re going through, but you can change how you’re going through it. Practicing self-compassion keeps you from making a hard situation even harder.

It also keeps a lot of the angst and sorrow and melancholy at bay. It lets you rest. And that’s what you need right now so that you can productively flourish.


Charlie Gilkey is an author, business advisor, and podcaster who teaches people how to start finishing what matters most. Click here to get more tools that’ll help you be a productive, flourishing co-creator of a better tomorrow.