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The courage to be (self) compassionate


The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change. ~ Carl Rogers

I was privileged to spend a day last week at a seminar led by Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneering researcher in the area of self-compassion.

During an exercise early in the day that taught us how to feel compassion for another person and compassion for oneself, I was surprised to notice how hard it was to be compassionate toward myself while feeling compassion toward my partner in the exercise was quite easy.

The young woman who was my partner for the exercise said she, too, experienced the same thing: she naturally felt compassion for me, but struggled with allowing compassion for herself.


Learning loving-kindness

Later in the day, Dr. Neff introduced a loving-kindness meditation. She had us close our eyes and imagine someone we loved and felt very warm toward. We directed our loving-kindness toward that person and repeated silently:

May you be safe.

May you be peaceful.

May you be healthy.

May you live at ease.

Then she had us imagine ourselves sitting with the person we loved and we said to both of us silently:

May we be safe.

May we be peaceful.

May we be healthy.

May we live at ease.

Finally, she asked us to hold just ourselves in our imaginations and hearts and repeat:

May I be safe.

May I be peaceful.

May I be healthy.

May I live at ease.

Is compassion okay for others but not you?

Dr. Neff pointed out that, originally, in order to teach compassion toward others, the Buddha had his followers first get in touch with their own self-compassion so that they could then send compassion and loving-kindness toward others.

But in our culture, she explained, it is so hard for us to allow ourselves self-compassion that she designed the exercise above in reverse: We get in touch with our compassion for others so that we can be compassionate and show loving-kindness to ourselves.

Of course, this exercise and the one with a partner earlier in the day made me wonder – why is it so hard to be self-compassionate?

Myths about self-compassion

I think it comes down to at least (I’m sure there are many more) these four mythical beliefs:


1. Self-compassion is selfish.

Women, especially, are taught to care for everyone else but themselves. Self-compassion can thus be seen as selfish, that taking care of yourself means you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing: taking care of someone else.

But ask yourself in all honesty: How can you take care of others with loving-kindness and authenticity if you haven’t established those things for yourself first?

Remember this:  Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

2. Self-compassion is indulgent.

“If I’m nice to myself and let myself off the hook all the time, won’t I just become lazy and self-indulgent?”

In a word, no.

Because, as Dr. Neff explains, self-compassion is about your health and well-being while self-indulgence is about getting anything you want when you want it without thoughts of well-being.

Self-compassion is about noticing and being with your pain. Self-indulgence is about numbing and denying your pain.


3. Self-criticism motivates you.

The opposite of self-compassion is self-criticism, that voice inside your head that constantly chirps away at what you could have done better, where you failed, and any other negative thing it can think of.

Somewhere inside, you may have the idea that this voice is the only way to keep you in line, be good, and move toward your goal. You may actually believe that self-criticism is motivating you.

Let go of that belief. Self-criticism is an inside job that only tears you down.


4. Self-compassion is wimpy.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“Man up.”

“Put on your big girl panties and stop whining.”

In our individualistic society, you are supposed to tough things out. Be kind to yourself? Quit being such a wimp!

In reality, allowing compassion toward yourself is one of the most courageous things you can do. It requires you to go against the grain of our culture and to express loving-kindness for yourself.

And, instead of using bravado and aggression to achieve goals, self-compassion creates the safety that is needed for you to gently critique yourself to meet your objectives and grow personally.


Takeaway points: Just like the old safety mantra about securing our own oxygen masks before we assist others, we need to allow compassion toward ourselves before we can truly be compassionate and express loving-kindness toward others. We have learned many myths about self-compassion that need to be banished! Self-compassion is about creating health and well-being for ourselves, not about being selfish, lazy, unmotivated, or wimpy.


Is it easy or hard for you to have self-compassion? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


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  1. Trish says:

    Each of the classic reasons against self-compassion are very familiar to me, I have thought of them as true until recently, Now I know they are beliefs, inculcated before i was old enough to evaluate them and they come automatically. However this morning, I “heard” them as if from outside my own thoughts, someone yelling in the door (no I am not psychotic, just a metaphor!) and this was GREAT because if I can hear them like that, I don’t have to BE them, I can separate. I love the meditation, Loving Kindness Meditation, always have. Thanks for putting this summary together from Neff’s work, I have passed it along to many people.

  2. Bobbi says:

    Hi Trish, thanks so much for your kind words about this post. You really do understand what it means to be self-compassionate and I can see that it came through a lot of hard work.

    The separation of our own thoughts from what is really true is hard so I’m curious how you came to be able to do that. Whatever your technique, I’m glad they are getting further away from you!
    Bobbi recently posted…Some disassembly required: 5 lessons to put yourself back together after falling apart My Profile

  3. […] It isn’t selfish, indulgent, or wimpy. Just like pink shirts, self-compassion is for real men – it takes courage. […]

  4. Jessica says:

    Marshall Rosenberg – Nonviolent/Compassionate Communication.
    I am attempting to learn how to do this in connection with extreme need.

  5. […] have talked about self-compassion in depth elsewhere, but I think the best thing to ask yourself is, “If it were my friend in this situation, how […]

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.