Since I started working as a health coach in 2021, I have noticed a theme which is common to all of the clients I have seen and something I have also had to address in my own life. Daily self-compassion changes lives, for the better. It simply requires calling to consciousness the three components of self-compassion that we need to live a more compassionate life, with compassion towards ourselves being at the core. I have been incredibly humbled by the responses I’ve had to this simple but beautiful message. Many thanks to Dr Kristen Neff, world leading self-compassion researcher with her powerful message to the world that self-compassion is at the root of effective lifestyle change. It’s been amazing watching this in action as I use her findings to underpin the coaching I have been doing over this last year. Self-compassion is brave and powerful, and most of all it works.
The three components of self-compassion are:
Accepting suffering as how you feel in the moment, and that times of suffering happen. We can accept and own the fact that this is not something to push down or deny. Instead, we can reframe suffering as essential information about our lived experience.
Suffering is common to all humanity, and it is a shared experience. The circumstances of the suffering are clearly different but as humans, we all experience the feelings of suffering.
What can I do right now, that would truly help and nourish me in this moment of suffering? This is not a crutch or vehicle for denial – but what could I really do to help myself, with the kindness of a good friend?
How to practice self-compassion
I practice self-compassion as a mindfulness technique because it is so much easier to practice if we are aware of our feelings in the moment. My clients’ use it as a mindfulness meditation, or simply as a tool to draw them into the present moment in their day.You can use the three components in any way that works for you. Just give it go and be curious to see what happens.Why not start with Dr Neff’s mini-self-compassion break here, the next time you need a break today? Find a time in which you can return to the present moment or “now” and experience what is happening in your body and environment. As with all practices of “being” rather than “doing”, self-compassion can happen anywhere. All it takes is for us to recognise in that moment how we are feeling, and then go through the three parts of self-compassion until we have that realisation that we can do something that will genuinely help in that moment. Stress, anxiety, fear, anger, or any emotion that has arisen can give us information about ourselves or the world around us, if we take the time to attend to it.
To this end, we could also see self-compassion as an emotional intelligence tool. It can be used to recognise our feelings, choose our response to them, understand them as common to all humanity and to help ourselves to respond to them appropriately in that moment. We can then choose a response that cares for us, as we would care for a friend. Once we start to use self-compassion as an approach towards our day, it’s easier to see the humanity in others and experience deeper more authentic connections with not only ourselves, but also colleagues, family, and friends. Put simply, Dr Neff’s work shows that if we judge ourselves harshly, without self-compassion, we are less likely to have empathy for others and hence judge them harshly too. From my background in the NHS, I experienced a culture of increasing perfectionism which is all too common in modern day professional life. Entering the world of naturopathic health coaching I have discovered a whole new world of practice where compassion for ourselves and our environment is at the core. This is where sustainable life-giving behaviour change happens.
In summary, self-compassion can be practiced anywhere, at any time of day or night, under all forms of circumstances in daily life. It only takes a minute or so and can be done alongside a period of breathwork too which can enhance its effects even more. All you need to do is try taking a minute of your day sitting at your desk, on the train, in a queue, out walking or cuddling your kids to try the three components of self-compassion and be curious about what changes will start to happen in your day-to-day experiences.
Misconceptions about self-compassion
Here I have set out five common misunderstandings about self-compassion and show what the research says to debunk these. Before you read on, take a moment right now to acknowledge any critical thoughts that have arisen inside your own mind about self-compassion as you have read this article. It’s worth looking at your inner critic and gently challenging these thoughts one by one, so that you can start to access the benefits that self-compassion can bring. Here are each of the common misconceptions, and the evidence to the contrary:
1. Self-compassion seems a bit of a weak-willed, “soft” way to talk to yourself. On the contrary research shows that self-compassion practice can help us to get through the hardest of times in life more effectively. For example, a large study published in 2022 , looked at recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder and found that people receiving support which included self-compassion practice had significantly better outcomes overall. One of the leading researchers in the field of compassion, Paul Gilbert, has stated that at the core of compassion is courage, not just kindness. In my coaching practice I have observed this as people step out, into the tough parts of life and tackle them head on. Caring for yourself is brave.
2. Self-compassion is self-indulgent and could perhaps lead to self-pity and unhelpful coping behaviours; it’s better to push through tough emotions and get on with life. Once again, the opposite is true. There is a direct connection between the amount of sleep and overall mental health resilience in health professionals who practice self-compassion. This means that they are more resistant to stress and have overall better physical health; all from practicing self-compassion . Self-compassion is not self-indulgent; rather, it is a brave dive into the tricky parts of life instead of denying them and “pushing through”.
3. Self-compassion sounds selfish. Just focusing on yourself all of the time will not be a healthy way to interact with the world; it’s better to focus on others. Interestingly the research shows the complete opposite again. For example, one recent study showed that doctors and nurses working in an intensive care unit who practiced self-compassion regularly were less likely to show signs of burnout and emotional exhaustion, hence more able to be available emotionally and physically to help their patients and colleagues .
4. Self-compassion will reduce motivation for change because there’s no need for will power when you just let yourself off the hook all the time. Once again, the polar opposite is observed in reality. In 2020, a large review of over 6000 studies looking at self-compassion in people with diabetes showed that people with patients tend make better choices around food and lifestyle if they practice self-compassion . This means they have better control of their blood sugar and less complications from the disease. The same is true when trying to lose weight. Self -compassion plays a key role in enabling people to make healthier, more sustainable choices around food and exercise .
5. Self-compassion sounds the same as self-esteem or self-confidence. However, when we look at Brene Brown’s seminal work on guilt and shame, we can see that self-esteem and self-confidence can be built up on external indicators of success. Her work shows that only those practicing self-compassion regularly have an inner resilience to life’s challenges which runs deeper than external successes, which may lead to false self-confidence or esteem . The key message here is the level of authenticity that underpins esteem and confidence; if these states come from a core of self-compassion, then there is a level of authenticity that cannot easily be broken down during hard times.
Identifying your own barriers to self-compassion
It can be so hard to begin practising self-compassion. We all go through times when that internal mental chatter starts telling us that this simple practice is a waste of our time. One way to identify barriers is to start taking time to sit down with the reasons or excuses that arise, writing them down and looking at them one by one. It has been well known for many years and informed by robust evidence that journaling can really support us to process difficult emotions, and physical afflictions. It can be equally useful to help us identify barriers to self-care.
Take a moment to write down a list of barriers you have to self-compassion practice. Next think deeply about your core values, noting these down beside your list of barriers to self-compassion. Then take the barriers you have written down one at a time and ask yourself if each barrier can be overcome, by rethinking self-compassion, especially in the context of your own deeply held values. Start to unpick these one at a time and write down what you discover about yourself and the barriers that are holding you back. Remember that the key thing is to talk to yourself like you would to a good friend, without judgment, a listening ear, and most of all kindness. If more complex issues arise for you, talk to a close friend, think about counselling or health coaching, and call to mind that self-compassion is brave, and this is the start of you making choices towards a healthier, more authentic and content you.
The empowering benefits of self-compassion practice
Practicing self-compassion can help tackle perfectionism, which is rife within our culture, education, and health systems. Taking a gentler, more accepting approach to personal failure seems to make people more motivated and curious to make change to improve their health and wellbeing .
Self-compassion makes us more emotionally resilient and forms a much more stable type of self-esteem and confidence. This can lead us towards a deeper understanding of this beautiful line from a poem by Brad Aaron Modlin:
Is a complete sentence.”
Practising self-compassion daily leads us towards this deeper understanding that “we are enough” and reduces the constant self-critique and negative self-talk that can be so damaging and demotivating. Work on self-esteem traditionally involves trying to look at yourself positively, and often creates the feeling that you need to be special or above average. This leads us to solutions such as perfectionism and people pleasing, which can be exhausting, and may ultimately do more to damage our self-esteem when we don’t measure up to our own perfect standards or who we think others want us to be. In contrast, self-compassion does not need comparison with others. Instead, it is a kind, connected, and clear-sighted way of relating to ourselves, even when we face our own of failure, inadequacy, and imperfection .
Reflections from health coaching
If I look back over my journey through burnout, it was moment to moment self-compassion which got me started on my own journey towards sustainable physical and mental health. Now, working as a health coach I can see very clearly that the lack of self-compassion skills in society often hold people back. We are hard on ourselves, thinking that we aren’t good enough for the job or the family we have, but this harsh attitude towards ourselves simply compounds the problem. We slip into self-defeating cycles and feel even worse about ourselves. Self-compassion works. It is brave and empowering. I hope I have presented enough evidence to make you sufficiently curious to give it a try every day for a week, then a month and discover the results for yourself.