Self-compassion and its impact on mental health

“Self-compassion removes the isolation and judgement and lets us see that we are part of the whole humanity and not alone in our struggles.”
(Photo by: Dave Lowe)
“Self-compassion removes the isolation and judgement and lets us see that we are part of the whole humanity and not alone in our struggles.” (Photo by: Dave Lowe)

Written by: Tiffany Bartell, LPC MHSP

Have you ever said something harsh or unkind to yourself that you’d never say to someone else? If so, you might be struggling with self-compassion. 

What is self-compassion? It is the practice of extending the same kindness, warmth and support to ourselves that we give to others. Self-compassion enables us to have a non-judgmental, warm and understanding response to ourselves when we are suffering, make mistakes or feel unworthy. 

According to an article by researcher Kristin Neff, there are three main elements of self-compassion. The first is self-kindness instead of self-judgment. According to Neff, this involves a warm kindness we use with ourselves when we fail or struggle, instead of being hard on ourselves when we feel we have fallen short or ignoring how we feel altogether. 

If we are practicing self-compassion, we realize that everyone struggles in their own way, and it is impossible to be perfect all of the time or be successful in everything we try. According to Neff, without this kind and reasonable approach, individuals actually experience greater distress and harsher self-talk when they suffer. It can be hard to learn to speak to yourself with kindness, but it is possible. And the rewards are rich.

The second element of self-compassion is replacing isolation with common humanity. Suffering and struggle, especially in college, can be isolating at times. It is easy to feel that you are the only one who is having a hard time in a class or struggling to make close friends. Neff points out that common humanity, however, points out the truth that all humans experience suffering, and being human means that we are vulnerable, fallible and imperfect. Self-compassion removes the isolation and judgment and lets us see that we are part of the whole of humanity and not alone in our struggles.

The third and final element is mindfulness instead of over-identification. According to Neff, mindfulness allows us to be present in the moment of our suffering or struggle and notice how we feel without judgment. Mindfulness helps us notice when we are struggling. It enables us to observe how we are feeling and thinking without over-identifying with how we feel and consequently allowing our feelings or experience tell us who we are or whether we are worthy.

How can self-compassion benefit mental health? Studies outlined in a 2010 article published in “The Journal of Positive Psychology” have shown that regular practices of self-compassion have been shown to decrease depressive symptoms and increase feelings of happiness. It also can lead to higher levels of life satisfaction. Neff reports that practicing self-compassion is thought to trigger the release of oxytocin. 

Oxytocin is a hormone that increases feelings of being connected, calm, safe and trusting. Self-compassion enables us to experience those feelings towards and with ourselves. Being self-critical, according to Neff, is related to activation of the amygdala as your body detects the lack of emotional safety that emotionally attacking yourself creates. Practicing self-compassion also has the power to decrease the levels of cortisol — a stress hormone —  showing that not only does self-compassion give you a positive emotional experience but also affects your body physiology, according to Neff. 

Sold on self-compassion, yet? If yes, you might be wondering how to get started. I recommend starting off with Neff’s self-compassion test: If you take it online, you can see how you score in each domain, and it can offer you helpful advice on where to start in growing your self-compassion. 

You may be surprised by the results. My results indicated that I scored well in mindfulness but also high in self-judgment, which affected my self-compassion score. 

The next step is to actually practice self-compassion. Neff’s website also contains specific exercises to increase your self-compassion: There are exercises of varying time lengths, and you can find scripts, as well as audio-narrated exercises.

Self-compassion might feel hard and unattainable, but feeling unworthy and being hard on yourself is also hard. Why not try self-compassion for your brain, for your body and for your happiness?

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