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photo by Victor Garcia

Why Self-Compassion?

October 2, 2016
By Andrea Martin, PhD, Psychologist 


A couple of weeks ago, on a sunny Saturday morning I set out to do some errands with my daughter. Our first stop was a big store a bit out of the way and one that I would usually avoid on the weekend because it is often very busy (and the experience can be less than pleasant!). We spent about 45 minutes shopping and getting everything on our long list of items we needed. We then waited about 10 minutes in line to pay and once the cashier rung up our cart full of items I dug into my purse to grab my wallet only to discover (to my serious dismay!) that it wasn’t there! In that moment, I realized I had taken my wallet out of my purse the night before and remembered having left it on the counter in the kitchen. Ugh! After all that time spent getting there and looking for everything on the list I was going to leave empty handed?! I was not a happy camper to say the least! I apologized to the cashier and asked her to keep my items aside for me promising to come back shortly and pay for my order, which she kindly accepted to do. As my daughter and I walked back to the car hand in hand and I apologized to her (there was a snack among those items we had to leave behind that she was hungry for!) and she looked up at me and said, “That’s ok mummy, we all make mistakes. In this big world, I bet lots of people have forgotten their wallet like that, its no big deal, we will just come back later”. I was stunned by my little 7 year old’s compassion (and wisdom!). She was absolutely right. I wondered if my body language had communicated that I was frustrated as I had been quite silent walking back to the car (although to be honest, my inner dialogue included some self criticism for my forgetfulness). It got me thinking more about something I work on with many of my clients (not to mention myself!), the topic of self-compassion.

We are hearing more about self-compassion in the media, but based on what some of my clients say or ask about this concept, there seems to be some misconception about the concept.  So what is self-compassion really? Self-compassion is basically the idea of treating and speaking to yourself as you would a friend or family member, or someone who is dear to you. So for example, on my trip to the store when I forgot my wallet rather than criticise myself for having been absent-minded I could have asked myself how I would speak to a friend had they been in this same situation. Would I have criticised a friend for this? Not a chance! I’d have tried to be understanding and supportive by reminding them that we all make mistakes from time to time, particularly when we are busy or have a lot on our minds. I also might have tried to use some humour to help my friend make light of the situation and change her way of thinking about it. Unfortunately, many of us tend to be very critical of ourselves and speak to ourselves in such a way that we wouldn’t consider speaking to a friend or someone we care about (and this is probably because if we did, we wouldn’t have many friends left!).

When I introduce the concept of self-compassion with some clients I get a sense of resistance to the idea and when we explore this further in session, we often discover that there is some confusion about what exactly self-compassion is. Self-compassion is not having low expectations or making excuses for ourselves, it isn’t being self-indulgent and it isn’t a pity party. The idea of being compassionate towards ourselves encourages us to take responsibility for our behaviour (shortcomings and all!) but it also involves acceptance of ourselves as we are and treating ourselves in a gentle and supportive way.  Being compassionate towards yourself doesn’t mean you don’t have goals or work hard, it simply means being mindful of your experience, being kind and understanding as you would be with someone you care about, and recognizing you are not alone in your mistakes and weaknesses, they are a normal part of human life.

Research has demonstrated that there are a number of benefits to being self-compassionate including less anxiety and depression (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012; Neff, 2003) a more positive mood in general (Neff et al., 2007) and greater resilience following a separation or divorce (Sbarra et al., 2012). It appears too that interpersonal functioning is greater for those with greater self-compassion (Neff & Beretvas, 2012). Self-compassion has also been found to be associated with greater motivation for self-improvement and change (Breins & Chen, 2012).

Want to know more about self-compassion?

Check out this great little video on self-compassion; in just 4 minutes, you’ll learn more about self-compassion and it includes a simple exercise on how to improve your self-compassion: 

A Self Compassion Exercise from Joe Bichard on Vimeo.

Hungry for more on the topic of self-compassion? 

Check out Kristin Neff’s (the worlds leading expert on self-compassion) website. It includes an abundance of excellent resources on self-compassion including a short test to evaluate how compassionate you are towards yourself. Check it out here: Test How Self-Compassionate You Are


Breins, J. G. & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases achievement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9): 1133-43

MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32, 545- 552.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.

Neff, K. D., & Beretvas, S. N. (2012). The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships. Self and Identity. 12: 78-98.

Sbarra, D.A., Smith, H.L., Mehl, M.R. (2012). When Leaving your Ex, Love yourself: Observational Ratings of Self-compassion: Predict the Course of Emotional Recovery following Divorce or Separation.  Psychological Science. 23(3): 261-9.

About the author

Andrea Martin received her PhD /Psy.D in Research and Clinical Psychology at UQAM, in Montreal, Quebec, and is a founding member and psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.