What Is Self-Compassion and How Can We Cultivate It?

Self-compassion is linked to better relationships, decreased anxiety, and greater life satisfaction, and fortunately, it is a mindset that can be developed

Compassion is the ability to understand the feelings of others and act with kindness. It plays an important role in our relationships and our well-being.

Self-compassion is just as important. When we have self-compassion, we can recognize our emotions and respond in a caring way. Self-compassion is essential to having a healthy relationship with ourselves. It has many mental health benefits.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • What self-compassion is (and is not)
  • How self-compassion benefits mental health
  • How we can build our self-compassion

Tap Into Self-Compassion

Watch as Dr. David H. Rosmarin helps us to foster more compassion for ourselves and for one another

What Is Self-Compassion?

According to Kristin Neff, PhD, a psychologist who was the first to define and measure the construct of self-compassion within research, self-compassion involves:

  • Being kind and understanding to oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical
  • Perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating
  • Holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them

Self-Compassion vs. Self-Esteem

Self-compassion might be confused with self-esteem. Although both states involve feelings of self-worth, they differ in how they are experienced.

Neff points out that self-esteem is more egocentric than self-compassion because it involves feelings of specialness and comparing oneself favorably to others.

Self-esteem involves feeling above average and can only be achieved when people do well in the areas of life they value (for example, when they feel good about their physical appearance or academic accomplishments). When these areas do not go well, self-esteem, and mental health, suffer.

Another drawback of self-esteem? A sense of superiority can come with it and sets people apart from others, creating a sense of isolation.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, involves acknowledging that everyone struggles at times.

When people have self-compassion, they do not rely on external sources of validation, like achievements, to feel valued. Because of this, self-compassion is more constant than self-esteem.

When we have self-compassion, we understand that we are human. We make mistakes, and we do not need to compare ourselves to others in order to feel better. When life does not go as we wish, we do not need to isolate ourselves out of shame.

Instead, we recognize that we are part of humanity, part of a greater whole, and that we are not alone. Even though this feeling of connectedness is rooted in hardship, it is good for our mental health.

Overcoming Self-Loathing

Woman sitting on steps looking down with sad expression.

Dr. Blaise Aguirre looks at the nature and presentation of self-loathing, considers its development in people living with BPD and related conditions, reviews the literature on the topic, and suggests some approaches to consider in tackling the experience of self-hatred.

Woman sitting on steps looking down with sad expression.

The Roots of Self-Compassion

To better understand self-compassion, we can think about times when we have felt compassion for others. When we have compassion, we feel another being’s experience, and we act on that feeling with kindness. Self-compassion involves recognizing our emotions and being kind to ourselves.

Studies, like this one from 2017, have found that compassion has its roots in evolution. Compassionate people were more likely to successfully raise children and befriend members of their communities. Because of this, people who practiced compassion were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

In his book, “Born to Be Good,” the social psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD, has written about how human beings evolved compassion and other positive emotions to behave ethically and create cooperative societies.

What Prevents Us From Being Kind to Ourselves?

If self-compassion has roots in evolution and biology, why do we struggle to be good to ourselves?

Here are some of the barriers that keep us from experiencing self-compassion.

Fear of Negative Emotions

People resist being kind to themselves for many reasons. For one, they may avoid self-compassion because the practice is new to them, and they fear the unknown.

They may also be afraid to confront their pain because they believe that once they do so, they will be engulfed in intolerably difficult emotions.

People who grew up in challenging backgrounds or experienced emotional abuse are less likely to have self-compassion than those who were raised in healthy environments. Individuals who experienced verbal abuse as they were growing up, for example, may have learned to talk to themselves in the same negative way they were spoken to as children.

When people who were abused do practice self-compassion, the experience may highlight the care they should have received all along. This illumination can create a sense of loss.

People with a history of child abuse may have also alternately experienced caring behaviors and harm from their abusers. The confusing, negative association can make survivors afraid to experience self-compassion.

If the feelings evoked by practicing self-compassion are distressing, it is important to seek the help of a mental health professional. With mindful awareness, however, it is possible to manage difficult thoughts and feelings and become less likely to get swept away by them.

Neff points out that practicing mindful self-compassion helps people take perspective on their lives, embrace their lives as they are, and provide themselves with the support they need to thrive.

False Belief That Negative Self-Talk Is Motivating

Many people berate themselves when they make a mistake. They believe negative self-talk will motivate them to perform better next time. Instead, as Harvard Business Review points out, such harshness only gives people a pessimistic view of their potential.

According to the article, before people can exercise the hard work essential for improvement, they need to have a realistic idea of their capabilities. Self-compassion makes accurate self-appraisals more likely, since people who practice it can accept their limitations without deluding themselves or feeling defeated.

Those who practice self-compassion are more likely to have a “growth mindset.” They believe that their abilities and situations can change, motivating them to improve.

Research shows that self-compassion is a resilience factor in the workplace and protects people from burnout. A 2021 study of Italian workers found that self-compassion is linked to emotional intelligence as well as personality traits, such as agreeableness. The authors of the study argue that employees and organizations would benefit from emotional intelligence training and education.

Confusing Self-Compassion With Self-Pity

People may resist self-compassion because they confuse it with selfishness or self-pity. They may feel guilty for being kind to themselves.

However, self-pity involves a focus on a person’s own problems to such a degree that they forget that others are struggling, too. It can lead to disconnection and isolation.

Self-compassion is the opposite of self-centeredness, however. As Neff points out, when people are self-compassionate, they recognize that they are part of humanity. Because they feel more connected, they are more considerate of others.

David H. Rosmarin, PhD, ABPP, director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, believes that culture also plays a role in our lack of compassion for ourselves. “Self-compassion is not a common theme in Western society,” he says. “We hold ourselves to extremely high standards.”

He adds that modern resources, such as technology, only increase our demand on ourselves. “The prevalence and severity rates of mental distress are sky high,” he says. “In this era, we are the most anxious, most depressed, and most mentally unfit beings in all of human history.”

Rosmarin believes the culture is slowly beginning to shift. He points to the example of American gymnast Simone Biles, who stood up for her own mental health by withdrawing from the final individual all-around competition in the 2020 Olympics.

“I thought that was a tremendous step for our society,” Rosmarin says. “Simone Biles was very self-compassionate in Tokyo. She led by example, she was very real about it, and her teammates were very understanding. What a beautiful moment!”

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Why Should We Extend Forgiveness and Kindness to Ourselves?

Self-criticism is often at the root of mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and stress. By developing self-compassion, though, we can change our mindset.

When disappointments, perceived failures, and stressful situations arise, we can respond to such events with greater gentleness. When we do this, we are more likely to learn from past mistakes, persist through adversity, and develop healthier relationships.

In fact, self-compassion has many mental health benefits.

These include:

  • Healthier relationships
  • Lower levels of anxiety
  • Lower levels of perfectionism
  • Lower levels of depression
  • Less rumination
  • Less thought suppression
  • Greater life satisfaction
  • Greater ability to cope with failure
  • More social connectedness
  • Increased emotional intelligence
  • Increased motivation for self-improvement

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How Can We Cultivate Self-Compassion?

Understanding our emotions can lead to increased well-being and resilience. Through mindfulness and therapy, we can develop a healthier relationship with ourselves.


When we use mindfulness to become aware of our emotions, how we become aware and how we react is important. It is not helpful, for instance, to be aware of our feelings but respond in a self-judgmental way.

If we become aware and consciously respond with kindness, we can develop self-compassion. Mindfulness, including various forms of meditation, can help us tap into self-compassion.

Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness is a form of meditation in which people send thoughts of kindness inward to themselves and outward to other beings. A 2022 review of scientific literature from the past two decades concluded that loving kindness meditations can increase self-compassion in adults.

A 2013 study found that veterans who participated in a 12-week loving-kindness meditation course had decreased levels of PTSD and depression three months after completing the course.


Psychologist and internationally recognized meditation teacher Tara Brach, PhD, uses the acronym RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture) to describe a mindful process of self-compassion. According to Brach, by using RAIN, people can develop a sense of presence in which they can fully realize what they are feeling and tend to those emotions.

Brach states that when we experience negative emotions, such as anger or anxiety, we can react in unhelpful ways, such as lashing out at another person or turning against ourselves in self-blame. However, by recognizing these emotions and allowing them to be, we can respond to our emotions instead of reacting to them.

According to Brach, when we no longer fight our emotions or push them away, we can investigate which factors are causing our distress.

We can do this by turning our attention to which emotions we are experiencing and where these feelings feel strongest in our bodies (for example, a clenched jaw or a tight chest).

We can then nurture ourselves by giving ourselves a kind message, imagining ourselves embraced by a trusted person, or offering ourselves symbolic gestures of nurturance.


If you hope to develop more self-compassion, a mental health professional can help in several ways.

Psychotherapy can heal psychological wounds, such as those caused by neglect or abuse, that may be blocking self-compassion in the first place.

A mental health clinician can model compassionate behavior. It is safe to say that most therapists are in the helping profession because they are compassionate people. When you experience being treated with kindness and understanding in a session, you can turn such kindness inward.

Therapy can also help change your mood. The way you treat yourself affects your mood (for example, if you tell yourself you’re an idiot, you are unlikely to feel great). But the other way around is also true. If you’re in a bad mood, you’re less likely to be self-compassionate.

Compassion-Focused Therapy

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that specifically addresses self-compassion.

Paul Gilbert, FBPsS, PhD, OBE, the psychologist who developed CFT, noticed that many people, especially those with high levels of shame and self-criticism, struggled to engage in traditional forms of psychotherapy.

The treatment focuses on patients’ emotions, motives, reasoning, rumination, attention, and behavior. It employs a range of interventions, including behavior and body monitoring, exposure, behavioral experiments, mindfulness, and expressive journaling.

CFT also helps patients become better at mentalizing—the ability to understand one’s own thoughts and feelings as well as the thoughts and feelings of another.

Because a patient’s ability to “feel” different as opposed to just thinking a different way is integral to CFT, the therapy emphasizes the use of compassion-focused imagery. Therapists help patients develop the capacity to imagine a warm, kind inner voice encouraging them through challenges.

Ways To Stop Negative Thinking

illustration of a man and woman sitting back to back

Having a critical voice is helpful—knowing how to block it out is even more helpful.

illustration of a man and woman sitting back to back

Try These Tips for Building Self-Compassion

Whether through the help of a mental health care provider or other supportive relationships, mindfulness, creative expression, or other exercises, self-compassion is a skill that can be developed.

1. Shift Perspective

Ask yourself how you would treat a friend under the same circumstances. We tend to be much harder on ourselves than we are on other people.

If you’re being critical of yourself, imagine what you’d say to a friend in the same situation. Can you be as compassionate towards yourself as you are towards your friend?

2. Write a Letter

Write yourself a letter using a compassionate framework.

For example, “Dear Jane, I realize your presentation at work didn’t go the way you wanted it to yesterday. I know you’ve been feeling disappointed and embarrassed, but consider all the stresses you’ve had this week … Everyone makes mistakes from time to time … I hope you can be a little easier on yourself. You deserve it.”

3. Open a Book

Studies, such as this one from 2013, have shown that reading fiction can help us build compassion for others, and likely for ourselves.

When we read literature, we have an inside look at characters’ points of view. We learn about the reasons behind their behaviors and circumstances. By reading, we can hone our ability to imagine others’ circumstances. We can also feel less alone.

4. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves focusing on our thoughts and emotions instead of running away from them. By being fully present in our experience, we can give ourselves space to be fully compassionate with ourselves.

Mindfulness can be developed through practices such as meditation and yoga. You can find guided mindfulness self-compassion exercises online and through apps such as Insight Timer and Headspace.

5. Exercise Positive Self-Talk

Change your tendency to be critical by using an active and positive voice. Rosmarin gives his patients the following exercise:

  • Spend 30 seconds thinking about an action you regret; think deeply about the experience and how upset you were at the time
  • Spend another 30 seconds expressing love, understanding, and compassion towards yourself

“The idea is to put yourself in the state of being upset about something and then practicing engaging in self-compassion through self-talk,” Rosmarin says.

6. Prioritize Self-Care

Taking care of yourself is important for your overall well-being.

Self-care involves engaging in activities that support your mental, physical, and emotional health. This includes regularly getting enough sleep, staying active, socializing, and maintaining a good diet.

Consistently neglecting self-care can lead to stress and a decline in overall mental health. Regular self-care practices help reduce the negative impact of stress and allow you to treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Taking time for rest, engaging in activities that bring joy, and maintaining healthy connections with others enhance your emotional resilience and make self-compassion more attainable.

We Deserve Our Own Kindness

Practicing self-compassion is a process that takes time and effort, but it is achievable. Instead of dwelling on past mistakes, focus on learning and growing from them. Embrace the idea that forgiveness is a journey, and with each step, you can let go of the past and move toward a more compassionate and understanding relationship with yourself.

When we are gentler with ourselves, our mental health improves. Our connection to others deepens. Unfortunately, we do not live in a society that encourages such kindness.

In the meantime, we can change our own minds. We can allow ourselves to feel our own emotions and respond with compassion.

Want More Information?

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