Learning to Love Yourself Begins With Self-Compassion

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Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

“If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.” Jack Kornfield

“Not only does a more supportive, loving attitude toward ourselves help us heal. But also our growth requires that we step away from the crowd, even if it scares us to do so. When we love ourselves as we are, we give ourselves the strength and confidence to move in our own directions, leave the safety of what has been called “the herd,” and grow into what we really are.” Marsha Sinetar

1. From How to Practice Self-Compassion by Emma Seppala:

Carole Pertofsky, head of health promotion at Stanford University, is a passionate advocate of resiliency and well-being through self-compassion. Pertofsky sees many Stanford students who are passionate about service, but suffer from overexertion. She advocates the following: “Put your own oxygen mask on before giving it to others. If you run out of oxygen, you aren’t going to help anybody. Our own basic needs must be met first; only then do we have the ability to help others. As humans, when we over-give, we become empty on the inside. We dry up and feel resentful. Our energy runs scarce, and we feel as if we have no more to give.” This state has often been called “compassion fatigue,” and is common in service professions, such as those of social workers and humanitarian aid workers.

Pertofsky also works with students who succumb to what’s called the “Stanford floating duck” syndrome: on the surface they look like they are calmly gliding along, but if you look underneath the water you’ll observe their legs pedaling away furiously, just to stay afloat. Carole teaches: “When we stop being self-critical and self-harming and start being kind to ourselves, it opens up the pathway to increase resilience.” Rather than wasting energy pretending to be calm while being closet workaholics and overachievers, students can actually learn to take care of themselves and to be balanced and happy.

In my own research with veterans at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I have found that self-compassion can be very helpful for returning soldiers. One man I’ll call Mike was highly self-critical and had developed extreme forbearance and self-discipline — attributes that earned him awards for courageous actions in combat. But at home, he could not reconcile his actions as a soldier with his values as a civilian, and he had come to think of himself as a terrible human being. Suffering from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, Mike could not sleep at night. After participating in a yoga, breathing, and meditation-based workshop as part of our study, Mike’s attitude changed. He shared that though he remembers everything that happened, he understands that his past actions under orders do not represent who he is as a person now. Mike has recovered his ability to sleep.

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2. From Self-Compassion by Good Therapy:

Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher and the first to define the term academically, describes self-compassion as having three elements.

  1. Self-kindness, or refraining from harsh criticism of the self.
  2. Recognizing one’s own humanity, or the fact that all people are imperfect and all people experience pain.
  3. Mindfulness, or maintaining a non-biased awareness of experiences, even those that are painful, rather than either ignoring or exaggerating their effect.

Self-compassion is also often confused with or linked to self-esteem, but the two differ: While self-esteem focuses on favorable self-evaluation, particularly for achievements, self-compassion is a form of self-acceptance, even in the face of failure. This emotion represents a shift away from being the best toward simply being the person one is. A person who scores high on measures of self-compassion might accept failures without defensiveness or justification and recognize that all people, even one’s own self, are deserving of love and acceptance. On the other hand, high self-esteem might lead to a tendency to ignore or hide any personal flaws.

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3. From Give Yourself a Break: The Power of Self-Compassion by Serena Chen:

Self-compassion does more than help people recover from failure or setbacks. It also supports what Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has called a “growth mindset.” Dweck has documented the benefits of adopting a growth rather than “fixed” approach to performance, whether it be in launching a successful start-up, parenting, or running a marathon. People with a fixed mindset see personality traits and abilities, including their own, as set in stone. They believe that who we are today is essentially who we’ll be five years from now. People who have a growth mindset, in contrast, view personality traits and abilities as malleable. They see the potential for growth and thus are more likely to try to improve — to put in effort and practice and to stay positive and optimistic.

My research suggests that self-compassion triggers people to adopt a growth mindset. In one study I conducted with Juliana Breines, participants were asked to identify what they considered to be their biggest weakness — most involved social difficulties such as lack of confidence, anxiety, shyness, and insecurity in relationships — after which they were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Participants in the self-compassion group were asked to write a response to this prompt: “Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness from a compassionate and understanding perspective. What would you say?” People in the self-esteem group were asked to write in response to: “Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this weakness from a perspective of validating your positive (rather than negative) qualities.” The final group was not asked to write anything.

Next, participants completed a set of measures about whether they felt content, sad, or upset and then were asked to spend five minutes describing whether they’ve ever done anything to change their weakness and where they thought their weakness came from. Independent coders rated participants’ responses based on the degree to which they conveyed a growth or a fixed mindset (“It’s just inborn — there’s nothing I can do” versus “With hard work I know I can change”). Participants in the self-compassion condition expressed significantly more thoughts associated with a growth mindset than participants in the other two conditions.

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Kathy Berman
You Have to Become Your Own Mental Health Expert

Addiction recovery date:11/24/1976. kathyberman.com. Addiction recovery; eating clean; self-discovery. Kathy Berman’s Publications lists my Medium publications.