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!”