When was the last time you offered yourself the gift of compassion? If you are like most women, you likely extend compassion, kindness, and loving care to your family, friends, and colleagues regularly. But when you experience feelings of insecurity or pain, do you grant yourself the same love?
Kristin Neff, PhD, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in the study of selfcompassion, says that women’s instinct to protect those they love often trumps their own need for self-compassion. “Women tend to be a little less self-compassionate and more self-critical than men,” she says. “From an evolutionary perspective, this is because women are more threat-focused— focused on dangers in order to keep their babies alive and pass on their genes.” Women are also a lot more compassionate toward others than men are, Dr. Neff says. “The discrepancy between how women treat themselves and how they treat others is bigger than it is with men.”
The good news, says Dr. Neff, is that though women may be in the habit of extending compassion toward others first, we have the necessary skills to provide that same level of care to ourselves: “Women know what to say; they know what counts as a caring response—they just have to remember and give themselves permission to treat themselves in the same way. They don’t have to learn something new; they just have to remember to apply it to their own life.”
In Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (HarperCollins, 2011), Dr. Neff describes the concept of self-compassion and the transformative impact the practice can have on our lives.
Self-compassion, she says, provides a freeing, empowering alternative to the pursuit of selfesteem. Self-esteem is based on how others perceive us and is therefore an ever-changing and largely unattainable source of satisfaction and happiness; self-compassion, on the other hand, is based on our recognition that we are all imperfect human beings and are all worthy of unconditional love. When we are selfcompassionate, we do not need to rely on others’ acceptance or praise, and we therefore rest in a more constant state of health, happiness, and well-being.
Having experienced the power of selfcompassion in her own life, Dr. Neff was inspired to bring self-compassion to a wider audience. “As a professor I have done a lot of research on self-compassion, and I wanted to write a book that would be accessible for the average person but would also be supported by research,” she says. The result is an engaging, easy-to-read exploration of the topic that balances research, Dr. Neff’s own experiences, and practical exercises in self-compassion.
Though self-compassion may not be instinctual, the reality is that we all have the skills—to be kind and compassionate and supportive—to engage in the practice. The decision to turn those skills toward our own well-being can be transformative.
Common Myths about Self-Compassion
Dr. Neff responds to common misperceptions about self-compassion.
Myth: Self-compassion is selfish.
Fact: When you are kind to yourself, you have more emotional resources to give to others. It is actually very self-centered to just think about how inadequate you are.
Myth: Self-compassion leads to less-productive behavior.
Fact: Research shows that self-compassion enhances motivation because it provides the supportive emotional environment needed to achieve our goals.
Myth: Self-compassion allows people to avoid responsibility.
Fact: If you have self-compassion, you are actually more likely to take personal responsibility for things. If it is safe to be an imperfect human being and you know you can still be met with acceptance and care, it is much easier to face what you have done, acknowledge what you have done, and repair the situation.
Myth: Self-compassion excuses harm.
Fact: Compassion wants to alleviate suffering and prevent harm through care and kindness as opposed to harsh judgment and criticism.