Self-compassion and what it really means

On holiday in Florence (Firenze), Tuscany, Italy, where there was a lot of street art and graffiti, however most of it was extremely good, including this simple one that, to me, tells a powerful and strong story.

People that truly know something about self-compassion and have made it part of their life’s work are Paul Gilbert and Kristen Neff. Watch this video and find out in three minutes what self-compassion actually is :

Self-compassion (Neff)

Many of us are good are being very compassionate to others but no one seems to have told us that we can be compassionate to ourselves. In other words, self-compassion.

We seem to have an aversion to or a dislike of this idea.

What – be compassionate to me?

To some people, this seems to be too self-centered, or narcissistic, or even big-headed. In some faiths, it may seem to be the ‘sin of pride’ to be paying that kind of attention to oneself. We can feel self-conscious and dismiss the very notion of it.

While being compassionate to others is wonderful, we can become depleted. We are also very quick to be self-critical and we can be full of internal judgment. The American family therapist, Virginia Satir, reckoned that we listen to thousands of hours of what she called ‘parenting tapes’ (playing messages from our parents about ‘rules’). These ‘rules’ can become strictures and internal voices of a critic. All of this wears us down. Not only does it empty the water from our well of compassion, it leaves us with no compassion for ourselves. An empty well serves no one.

Inside the well
Photographer: Maria Krasnova | Source: Unsplash

The key parts of self-compassion

Compassion has key features – when you see someone suffering, you first begin to notice it. Second, when you have noticed it, you then begin to feel something for their suffering or pain. You may feel an internal pang, a tug on your heartstrings, or even sadness. As part of this, you feel a desire to help the person or to try to reduce their pain or suffering in some way. A parallel thread of this is that you feel this without judgment of the person. You realize and know that people can make mistakes or that life can be tough sometimes. These are all like streams that flow into one river, which leads to the sea – where you realize that any one of us could find themselves in the same position as the person that is suffering.

Take a quick example – a four-year-old boy who is crying because he has lost his Mom in a store. You notice him, you see and hear his crying, you wish you could help him and take away his pain, you are not critical and you realize that this can happen in a crowded place or when people get momentarily distracted or lose sight of each other. It could happen to anyone of us at that age. You feel compassion.

Neff says that :

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

This makes sense – doesn’t it?

Neff further breaks self-compassion into three key parts :

  • self-kindness,
  • common humanity and
  • mindfulness

Let’s look at each of these in turn, and then bring it all together at the end.


I met Michael in a Boston subway station. I told him I liked his sign. “What matters is what it means to you,” he told me.  I asked what it meant to him. “Doing a deed or expressing kindness to another person without expecting anything in return,” Michael said.  I love approaching strangers wherever I go. Listening and talking to them teaches you about people and how similar we all are to one another. Just like Michael, we’re all seeking human kindness.
Photographer: Matt Collamer | Source: Unsplash

Self-compassion means that when we don’t succeed, or are suffering, or when we feel ‘less than’, that we show understanding and have a degree of warmth towards ourselves. Our usual response might be to keep on going and not pay enough attention to pain (when you have just cut your finger while cutting broccoli and blood is pouring from it and you tell someone looking on in horror “I’m fine”, while inside you’re thinking this is like a scene from a slasher movie). The other thing we need not do is to beat ourselves up (that internal voice that says, “you dufus, how could you think your finger looks like broccoli, and now look at the state of the kitchen”).

Instead, we recognize that we’re human. Life will throw curveballs, which come fast and with a spin. We won’t always be able to catch them.

Have a look at Bill Gates of Microsoft launching Windows 98.

Bill Gates made light of it. He didn’t criticize his colleague or himself or the company.

We have two choices – get into that negative self-critical spin, or know that things fall apart and don’t always work out as planned. Rather than getting more frustrated when something has gone wrong, we are much better off being kind to ourselves.

If you cut your finger while chopping veggies, you can go into a rant with yourself and be highly self-critical but it isn’t going to make you feel better. It’s actually going to make you feel worse! What’s the point of piling on more suffering on top of existing suffering?

Accept that ‘shit happens’ – to everyone – and respond in a kinder way towards yourself. You might even choose to laugh a little as well. This is a good way of keeping more balanced emotions, and getting off the see-saw of self-criticism and feeling bad.

Common humanity

Painted red
Photographer: Tim Marshall | Source: Unsplash

Ok, I’m not going to starting singing ‘We are the world’ but I say this because when something happens to us that causes suffering (whether that’s cutting your finger while chopping veggies or being late for a parent-teacher meeting), we are not the only ones it has happened to. I have some not-so-stunning news for you – other humans on the planet have cut their finger on the vegetable chopping board, or have arrived late at important meetings.

Part of what makes us beautiful is our humanity. Our weakness is our strength. Maybe you’ve heard that Leonard Cohen song, Anthem :

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Self-compassion is about recognizing that suffering, failure, and making mistakes are universal. It joins us to the rest of the human race. There is comfort in knowing that we are not the only ones who have ever missed an important meeting. We don’t need to take it so personally. Instead, we can be self-compassionate to ourselves and understand that stuff just happens. It doesn’t always work out all the time – for us or for anyone.


“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”  ― Thich Nhat Hanh
Photographer: Lesly Juarez | Source: Unsplash

Mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”

Using the above quote by Jon Kabat-Zinn when thinking of self-compassion, this means noticing the negative feelings that we may have. It means not ‘jumping into’ the river of these feelings and getting swept away by them but observing them. We don’t try to push them away and neither do we blow them up even higher. We work to make that connection between our experiences and those of others. This places our personal experience of suffering in the context of a larger worldview and a wider perspective. A key part of this too, is knowing that we cannot feel compassion for ourselves if we are at the same time trying to push our feelings away. If we blow those feelings up, we will get swept up in them and overreact. Self-compassion then becomes lost. We need to use mindfulness to keep a steady balance. With balance, we can give ourselves self-compassion.

Why is this so important?

My hope is that this gives a good sense of what self-compassion actually is. It is such an important part of mindful parenting to have self-compassion as a parent. Too often, parents can become swept up in reactive emotions, or feel like a failure, feel guilty, or be overly self-critical.

Self-compassion is important for each of us to have as parents but also to be able to teach our children as a life skill and a resource for themselves.

We unconsciously and consciously have picked up our parenting form our own parents. Take a moment to consider what you would like your children to learn from you.

Parenting is hard work. We need to be able to continually replenish our own well of compassion for ourselves.

Christopher Germer, who has written with Kristen Neff, provides a useful definition of self-compassion too (in the image above). It might be useful to print this out or save it on your phone!

Want to learn how to be self-compassionate?

Love to Learn
Photographer: Tim Mossholder | Source: Unsplash

Here’s an easy way to get started, right now!

We’ll send you some FREE resources on self-compassion so that you can begin straight away!