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Self Compassion

Self Compassion

I first came across the concept of Self Compassion when I stumbled across a book called “The Horse Boy” by Rupert Isaacson.  He and his wife have a son, Rowan, who is autistic.  Through a series of ‘accidents’ they found he became calmer and happier when around horses and even started to speak when riding on a horse with his dad.  As a family they undertook a journey to meet the horseman in Mongolia and the Reindeer People.  They sought the help and healing of Shamans which transformed Rowan’s turmoil and behaviour.  As all good books do this story had a profound effect on me and led me to look further.

Rowan’s mum is an American academic called Kristen Neff and throughout the book there were references to her work on Self Compassion.  She cited many instances when her practice of Self Compassion helped her to cope with Rowan’s profound distress and difficulties with everyday life.  Her book, simply titled “Self Compassion”, shows how we can apply these principles to our own lives.  She is doing great work in the States bringing Self Compassion programmes to many sectors of society.  Everyone from prisoners to students to people suffering intense anxiety, depression and addictions.     The results are astounding.

Self Compassion is basically:


  • Being your own best friend and treating yourself well.
  • Being kind and understanding of yourself as a human being in this moment of suffering
  • Being with the reality of what is happening and looking for how to make it better for yourself.


Before we look at how this works it’s worth looking at the way we usually treat ourselves first.

Self  Criticism

Most people are very good at being compassionate, kind and understanding with others but we rarely apply the same principles to ourselves.

Our default is to be critical and intolerant of our humanness.  We treat ourselves pretty badly a lot of the time and many people are their own harshest critic.

Why do we do this?

There are many reasons why we think this is a good thing to do.

  • As group livers, pack animals if you like, we often adopt submissive behaviour to be accepted within the group.  We abase ourselves to be allowed to remain.  Even the lowest rank will be fed eventually whereas one that challenges authority risks being cast out on their own.
  • We have a natural ‘negative bias’.  That means we are hard wired to notice things that may do us harm so we can avoid danger.  Noticing possible threats allows us to survive so things that are bad for us register higher than things that are good for us.
  • It can be an effective means to avoid criticism from others.  Comments are less hurtful or damaging if we’ve already hauled ourselves over the coals. 
  • It can be a defensive tactic to deflect harsh treatment.  Our self-deprecating behaviour can endear us to others – the class clown usually avoids harsh treatment from the bullies.
  • It can be learned behaviour.  We grow up with people either being critical of themselves or of us so that’s how we expect to be treated.
  • The fear of our own reprisal can be a great motivator to get us to move and achieve.
  • There is often an unspoken role in many families that to be loved we have to be perfect.  Constantly criticising ourselves can drive us to keep trying to improve and strive to be worthy of others approval.
  • It can be a way to feel superior over others and bolster our own lack of confidence.
  • We can also feel superior to our own sorry selves by being able to berate ourselves to do better – at least I can be in charge of that!
  • It can be a way to play down any expectations, whether our own or from others may have.  If we end up failing then we haven’t fallen too far.  There is less disappointment if we didn’t make out we’d be any good.

The downsides to Self Criticism.

So, if there are so many reasons why we choose to behave in such a self-critical manner why is it so harmful?

  • This way of being is often related to depression, anxiety, lack of confidence, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.
  • It can lead to attracting relationships where our own lack of self worth is mirrored by the other person.  Rather than attracting, or being able to receive praise, we draw people to us who will treat us in a similar negative way.  This may be due to how we have been brought up.  Although a part of us may dearly wish to be with someone who treats us well it’s often a case of ‘Better the devil you know’. 
  • It is often associated with destructive behaviour such as self-harming, alcohol or drug dependency, reckless behaviour, being a workaholic, overeating or anorexia.
  • The stress that self criticism invokes is damaging to our bodies and minds.  The Amygdala (the old reptilian part of our brain responsible for flight or fight) is constantly stimulated making us feel under attack.  This leads to a whole host of chemical reactions in the body which not only makes us feel ill but undermines our immune function.


“What is this self inside us, this silent observer,

Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorise us

And urge us on to futile activity

And in the end, judge us still more severely

For the errors into which his own reproach drove us?”

T. S. Elliot


How do our fears perpetuate this Self Criticism?

One of the hardest habits to break is to stop beating ourselves up over beating ourselves up.  There is a big fear that if we stop criticising ourselves then we’ll just grind to a halt and become a big blob of inertia where nothing will get done.   We fear losing ambition or becoming weak, lazy, or just giving up.  We’re concerned others may reject us or we’ll become self-indulgent.

How do we stop this Vicious Circle?

We need to push the reset button on how we operate and the means by which we motivate ourselves.  We have to stop being all stick and no carrot.

How is Self Compassion different to High Self Esteem?

Having high self esteem is dependent on others buying into our image.  We feel we need to be judged in a positive manner and gain others approval.  If appear to fail then our self esteem plummets.  Success and failure hang on a fine thread and are totally dependent on what happens ‘out there’.

How is Self Compassion different to Narcissism?

Narcissism is a hugely inflated sense of self.  Narcissists hold an unrealistic belief in their competence, attractiveness or intelligence and expect to be praised no matter what.  Their status depends on others validating their image and makes them extremely sensitive to the opinion of others.  Their image is tenuous and if not judged favourably the reaction can be violent.

How to become more Self Compassionate:

There are 3 main aspects to being Self Compassionate.  These help us to treat ourselves better and ultimately live more rounded and fulfilled lives.

 1.      Self Kindness


  • When we find ourselves in a difficult or upsetting situation the first thing we need to do is acknowledge that this is tough for us.  Actually converse with yourself in the way you would a good friend who was having a hard time. 
  • ü  Become aware of your own internal dialogue and how you speak to yourself.  I bet a lot of the time you wouldn’t let anyone else speak to you the way you do to yourself.
  • ü  Stop the constant judgement, running down and aiming for perfection.  No-one is perfect, not even you.  You are setting yourself up to fail before you even start - so stop it!
  • ü  Actively comfort yourself when things are difficult.  By doing this you stimulate your own inbuilt ‘tend & befriend’ nurture system, the opposite of ‘fight or flight’  This activates chemicals such as Oxcytocin which reduces stress and creates a more positive healing environment.  Our immune systems are significantly improved and we are able to withstand more pain when Oxcytocin is present. 
  • ü  Accept ‘whole and real’ people are made up of light and dark, good and bad – integrate the shadow, as the psychologist Jung would say.
  • ü  When we resist the fact we are suffering it makes it more painful.  Give yourself a hug or even just imagine it – your body doesn’t know the difference.  You’ll still reap the benefits.


ü  Think what you can do, right now, to help yourself feel better.  What can you give yourself or ask of others to help you in this moment.

 1.      Common Humanity


  • We are encouraged to believe we are separate.  That we are unique.  In many ways we are.  All a one off, a special fragment of the universe. However, being separate means we often feel disconnected, alone, scared, lonely, vulnerable or sad.
  • Our need to belong is very strong.  We are mammals and all mammals have issues of groups.  Am I in the group or out the group, on the edge or in the middle?  Where is my place?
  • We can feel it’s us against them which can lead to feelings of humiliation, prejudice, fear and wars.
  • We are all part of the human race and are also part of all life on this planet and beyond. We all need the same things to thrive and be happy.
  • Suffering is part of the process of living.  Everyone experiences some of it at one time or another and it will change.
  • We need to appreciate we all have good and bad qualities, everyone does. It is only our judgement of them that makes those good or bad.


“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” – Shakespeare

 3. Mindfulness


  • Mindfulness is learning to observe our thoughts and feelings in the moment.
  • Be aware of the here and now.  Really anchor yourself in your physical body and focus on the sensations there. 
  • Watch your thoughts.  Instead of getting hooked into them see them as weather passing over and wait for the storm to pass.
  • Ignoring or suppressing how we feel is only a short term solution.  It doesn’t stop those feelings being there.  It takes a huge amount of energy to continually ignore them which ultimately leads to increased stress, overwhelming feelings of worry, anxiety, exhaustion and burn out.
  • Being Mindful allows perspective.  We can step back and see the reality of the situation as it is right now.  It helps us to take the long view where things are less scary.
  • Being Mindful allows acceptance.  Continually feeling things shouldn’t be happening creates a mental traffic jam.  With acceptance we stop fighting the way things are.  Acceptance doesn’t mean we like or agree with how things are but we acknowledge this is how it is – in this moment.  We can then relax enough to look at how to change things.
  • Being Mindful allows us to respond – not react.  We stop making things worse and actually see things how they really are.


“I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”- Mark Twain

Serenity Prayer

God, give me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change

courage to change the things I can

and the wisdom to know the difference.


The Benefits of living with Self Compassion

  • We acknowledge we are mysterious and complex creatures.  All of us have struggles and weaknesses.
  • We learn that things will change.
  • We don’t always need others to fix us or determine our true value.
  • We don’t have to rely on our job, finances, relationships, looks, circumstances or other people’s behaviour to be a certain way for us to be happy.
  • It makes you more emotionally resilient and stable.  We are less flustered when life knocks us.
  • We can surmount the hardest of times with courage.
  • It enhances feelings of wellbeing – we become more optimistic.
  • We become more satisfied with life. 
  • We learn to be grateful and savour our lives.
  • It lessens anxiety and depression. 
  • We are less overwhelmed by negative emotions or situations.
  • We are less angry as we’re not living on such a knife edge.
  • It lessens the reactions in our nerve receptors allowing us to physically cope better with physical discomfort or pain.
  • If we fall off our diet there is less chance of bingeing.
  • We take better care of our health.
  • It allows the negative aspect of us a voice.  When we are heard it is easier to let go of the hurt and see how we can help ourselves rather than spiralling downwards.
  • It stops us kicking off inappropriately or going into meltdown in Sainsbury’s!
  • Life happens – we don’t have to make it worse by criticising ourselves or pouring salt into wounds.
  • It makes us less self conscious and less affected by other people’s ‘stuff’
  • It lowers cortisol levels which in turn lowers blood pressure and allows the body to heal better.
  • It steps into help at the time we need it most - when life gets tough.
  • It doesn’t stop painful experiences happening but it gives us space to transform them.
  • We can see what we truly need for our own development and life goals.
  • We can take advantage of opportunities, not just avoid dangers,
  • You’re able to pick yourself up, get back on the horse and start again even if things turn out badly.     We become less fearful of failure – listen to “The Roses of Success” song in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’.
  • We procrastinate less and are not so afraid to step out of our comfort zone.In Yoga they say the hardest move is to the mat.
  • We are better team players as less affected by others.
  • We can relate to people better as we don’t feel so threatened.
  • We can reach higher when we feel calm and secure.
  • It helps progress by you asking what is good for you, what will help you to do well and be happy?
  • You want to change things that are damaging to you or holding you back.
  • You can accept compliments and delight in others doing well instead of feeling threatened by other people’s success.
  • Valuing yourself helps you make better life choices and perform better.
  • You have Intrinsic Motivation – desire to learn and improve out of curiosity rather than fear of punishment.
  • We’re inspired to pursue dreams and brave enough to have a go.
  • In short we chose our own life rather than running from the Sword of Damocles.


Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves,

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people

won't feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,

we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,

our presence automatically liberates others.”

– Marianne Williamson



Reader Comments (1)

I really enjoyed this article Mel. Many aspects of it are exceedingly useful for me, at thus time, so Thank you x

By Sue on Friday, April 14, 2017

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