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Self-compassion has become a prominent buzzword. We hear it when sharing hard feelings with friends and family, while meditating in a yoga class, and, most often, coming out of the mouths of our therapists (guilty as charged).

We toss around the phrase a lot, but how many of us actually know what cultivating self-compassion looks like?

I’ve found that when I introduce the topic of self-compassion in my practice, many of my clients don’t know what I’m talking about. They sometimes ask: “Go easy on myself? What does that even mean?” Other times, they exhale, saying something along the lines of: “Sure…that’s easier said than done.”

I understand this pushback.

Imagine you have a history of pushing yourself to do better, to be better. It comes from a lifetime of feeling internal and/or external pressure from your parents or your community to prove yourself. Then, after years of operating under that model and receiving validation and success from this grind mentality, you sit across from a “professional” who tells you to practice more self-compassion.

My immediate reaction would be less than enthusiastic, too.

In our society, capitalism favors the grind mindset over the compassionate one. For many people who are new to the term and the practice of self-compassion, it not only sounds like a foreign idea, but a potentially dangerous one, as it can threaten notions of perceived success and productivity.

When I discuss self-compassion as a therapeutic intervention, the question my clients ask most is: “How can I practice self-compassion if there are things I want and need to change?”

I decided to dedicate this blog post to address this very question, as it is a valid concern for people who are coming to therapy hoping to make meaningful change in their lives. Specifically, we are going to address what self-compassion is, what it is not, and why it is so important for meaningful change.

What Is Self-Compassion?

To look for answers, we will  reference Kristen Neff, who is one of the experts on compassion in the mental health field. Neff defines self-compassion as honoring and accepting one’s humanness. I define self-compassion as a practice of meeting yourself where you are at.

Just as we would practice showing compassion to our loved ones through validation and normalization of their experiences, we are able to show up for ourselves in similar ways when confronted with our own shortcomings.

Neff’s definition incorporates three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Together, these three components make up the practice of self-compassion. Here’s what they mean.


Self-kindness is the practice of speaking to yourself kindly, particularly when you feel like you’ve made a mistake or come up short on an expectation (either from yourself or from others). Rather than being critical or judgmental of yourself and centering those thoughts, you instead practice giving yourself grace by being gentle with yourself and your actions.

Common Humanity

The concept of common humanity reinforces the notion that as humans, we are inherently imperfect and inconsistent. When we lead with the idea of common humanity, our expectations of ourselves become less rigid and based in perfectionism, and more aligned with the natural limitations we possess as people.

When adopting this perspective, our humanity is understood and accepted in a collective way, and we are steered away from the shame and isolation that comes with thinking that we are the only ones who aren’t living up to our expectations.


My favorite component of Neff’s definition of self-compassion is mindfulness. Approaching oneself in a mindful way involves a two-step process.

  • First, we must approach our feelings and thoughts with nonjudgemental awareness and curiosity. As Neff posits, we can’t hold compassion for feelings that we are ignoring. As such, practicing awareness is a key component to self-compassion.
  • The second piece of mindfulness involves stepping back from the situation at hand and fitting it into a larger context in order to better understand and depersonalize the situation. This piece is crucial in order to avoid over-identifying with our feelings, thoughts, or behaviors.

When employing self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness toward ourselves and our shortcomings, we are practicing self-compassion.

Now that we have a foundational understanding of the definition of self-compassion and what it involves, let’s discuss what self-compassion is not.

What Self-Compassion Isn’t

Perhaps the biggest theory I have to debunk in my therapy practice with clients is the idea that self-compassion and self-growth are mutually exclusive.

That is to say, many people fear the idea of self-compassion due to a misguided belief. They think that if they offer compassion for themselves or their position, they are effectively excusing their actions, and/or feel resigned to the idea that they can’t or won’t change.

This belief, while common, can be a challenging one to hold, as it encourages a mentality of self-beratement and criticism as a means for change. When we stay in a place of judgment, we cultivate fear and shame over our failures.

These heavy emotions are non-starters, eroding our ability to make meaningful changes in our lives.

Self-compassion is not a bridge into complacency. When we offer compassion to ourselves, we are not making excuses for our mistakes or failing to live up to our goals for ourselves.

Rather, we are offering ourselves context for the failure, validating the fact that change is difficult, and neutralizing shame and fear so that we can build the resilience to get back up and try again.

Why Self-Compassion Matters

How does it feel when someone close to you takes the time to listen to your feelings, validate your experience, and normalize the mistakes you’ve made?

When I leave conversations with my friends and colleagues who have offered me compassion through a difficult situation, I feel nourished, seen, valued, and wonderfully human. Like a hydration stop along a marathon race, compassion provides us with the sustenance to foster resilience on our journey through growth and change.

In practicing self-compassion, we have the power to influence our own sense of resilience, to check in and offer necessary nourishment when the journey gets hard. And, when we strengthen our practice of self-compassion, the compassion we extend to others grows as well.

Self-Compassion, Applied

So, what are some tangible ways you can start to practice compassion?

I often tell my clients to start with context, especially when they have a tendency toward self-judgment. If you find it easy to judge yourself for mistakes you’ve made, start by offering yourself some context the next time you feel inadequate.

Here’s an example: It’s the end of the workday and you spent most of the day feeling distracted and struggling to focus. As a result, you didn’t finish the task you were meant to complete. Rather than (or after) berating yourself for being careless, undisciplined, or unfocused, start by asking yourself some simple questions, such as:

  • Why did I struggle focusing today?
  • What’s going on in the greater context that may contribute to how I’ve been feeling today?

See if you can engage in some investigative work for yourself in order to practice principles like mindfulness, depersonalization, and common humanity.

When we practice understanding our thoughts, behaviors, and actions in a greater context, we are creating space for our imperfectness, honoring our humanity and working to meet ourselves where we are at. In doing so, we continue along our journey through growth, feeling wiser and more resilient after each fall.