I have a fierce inner critic that has shadowed me most of my life. While she still hovers, bit by bit she is relaxing her grip. That’s in large part due to finding Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion (and my dear friends). Whether your inner critic is as vocal as mine or not, self-compassion is a great practice for integrating all of those naturally imperfect aspects of ourselves and for cultivating kindness from the inside out. This article, based on Neff’s work, was adapted from “Self-Compassion,” part of our free, downloadable Conversations About Compassion guide.
Self esteem vs. self-compassion
I grew up in a time when self-esteem, not self-compassion, was a sought after quality. Although a dictionary definition of self-esteem describes it as “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself,” in Western culture it is often based on a comparison of self to others and tethered to our successes and failures—rising and falling with our latest accomplishment, acquisition, or mistake.
On the other hand, according to a Duke and Wake Forest University study, self-compassion involves recognizing your own suffering, feeling moved to respond to it with kindness, understanding that you are not suffering in isolation, and cultivating a practice of mindfulness. According to Neff, “Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.”
Self-compassion is not dependent on differentiating and separating ourselves from others, but on seeing our interdependence, our common humanity, fragility, and imperfections. Understanding that our progress in life is built on both success and failure, self-compassion provides a soft place to land each time we fall—as we inevitably do.
We’re all imperfect
Self-compassion puts our failures and foibles in perspective—we’re all imperfect and bound to make mistakes or encounter misfortune. Imperfection is simply a given, a part of our makeup. In a framework of self-compassion rather than self-esteem, it is easier to accept our imperfections and be kind to ourselves in good times and bad.
Mindfulness, the third element of self-compassion, can be an antidote for harsh self- criticism. Practicing mindfulness can help us disengage from an emotional response to an event, de-escalate our self-criticism and painful emotions, and allow us to navigate challenges with greater equanimity and perspective.
Cultivating self-compassion has helped me tame my inner critic (though it certainly still arises). More than that, research shows that people with greater levels of self-compassion have less anxiety and depression, increased psychological strengths and positive emotions, a greater ability to forgive, and are better able to navigate difficult life events.
Self-compassion isn’t subject to the winds of fortune or misfortune. It encompasses and allows both, providing a ballast to stabilize the ups and downs of life. By allowing our imperfections while acknowledging we’re worthy and lovable, self-compassion nurtures human possibility.
Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.