There’s no denying that “self-compassion” is one of the latest buzzwords in popular psychology. Reactions to the phrase range from those who practice it daily to those who dismiss it as “hokey”. The truth is that a mounting body of evidence across psychology and medicine confirms there are tremendous health benefits to embracing self-compassion.
As a therapist, I frequently interact with individuals whose primary strains on their mental health include self-critical thoughts and perspectives. One common cause for these concerns is a lack of self-compassion, such that individuals are “too hard” on themselves in many aspects of life, potentially to the point of disliking themselves overall. This underlying issue can manifest in unexpected ways; for example, some relationship problems stem from a series of self-critical beliefs projected on otherwise healthy relationships.
Why is it so common for people to be overly self-critical?
As children, we tend to internalize the way caregivers treat us and use experiences as templates for how to treat ourselves later in life. Therefore, if we are raised in a critical and less affectionate environment, we are more likely to be critical, less affectionate, and less understanding of ourselves.
One explanation many offer in defense of self-criticism is that it can motivate us to identify and address weaknesses, leading to improved skills and abilities. However, it can also lead to negative consequences when it becomes chronic or excessive, including decreased self-esteem and increased stress. Therefore, it's important to find a balance between self-criticism and self-compassion in order to optimize well-being.
Once we develop a cognitive habit, such as harsh self-criticism, it can be hard to break because our brains have evolved to be expert over-thinkers. Ruminating about something negative we said or did (or didn’t do well enough) may stem from survival adaptations evolved during the era when focusing intently on negative or threatening facts helped us avoid encountering or repeating dangerous mistakes in the future. Furthermore, our bodies help our minds remember these lessons by accompanying such thoughts with a cascade of familiar physical and emotional responses (high blood pressure, nausea, anxiousness, etc.).
Once tremendously helpful in ensuring our survival, these processes are counterproductive in modern times where the threats are far less lethal, yet the body experiences the same physiological response. The brain and body do not distinguish well between social and physical harm, invoking the same fight-or-flight response when it is not necessary or helpful. In fact, merely remembering or imagining threatening experiences can cause the same cascade of stress responses as actually experiencing the stressor. Therefore, dwelling on stressful encounters at work or home through self-criticism may maintain a chronic stress response, making us less physically and psychologically healthy and less equipped to handle the next obstacles that come our way.
Just as we can habituate self-criticism by invoking it too often, we can also build a pathway for self-compassion. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life in response to experience. Just as the self-criticism neuropathway can become one’s default through excessive repetition, it is possible to rewire your brain using the same innate processes to choose self-compassion.
Psychologists have studied how to harness the brain’s plasticity to build stronger self-compassion. According to Dr. Kristen Neff, there are three elements to focus on: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
The first is mindfulness, which challenges you to be still, observe, and accept your negative thoughts and emotions with openness, rather than over-identifying with them or suppressing and denying them. Mindfulness is merely “being with” painful feelings without trying to resist, change, or push them away.
The second element is common humanity, “Recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience—something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.” Knowing that we all share feelings of being incompetent, unlikeable, or flawed actually lessens the burden these thoughts have on our well-being.
Finally, there is self-kindness: “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”1
While I hope you find this background in self-compassion interesting, here are some actionable steps toward building self-compassion that you may find helpful:
Practice the reverse golden rule:
Treat yourself how you would treat others (a friend or loved one)
When experiencing a difficult experience or feeling, ask yourself:
“What do I need in this moment?”
“What does this feeling want from me?”
“What narrative am I telling myself?”
Practice identifying & labeling your emotions and bodily sensations without judging or reacting to them.
Practice breathing deeply while
Putting hands over your heart
Giving yourself a hug
Wrapping yourself tightly in a blanket
If you are struggling with self-criticism and would like support in building self-compassion, please do not hesitate to reach out!
Center for Mindful Self-Compassion https://centerformsc.org
Kristin Neff http://www.self-compassion.org/
Christopher Germer http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. & Christopher Germer, PhD
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, PhD
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer, PhD
Self-Compassion Resources | Kristin Neff. (2023, January 9). Self-Compassion.