Self-Compassion As A Catalyst For Change: Woo-Woo Or Solid Science?

“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” – Kristin Neff, Ph.D.

It’s human nature to struggle. Sometimes, stuff sucks. 

Each of us humans are part of a greater whole. Meaning, we share many of the same experiences. Yet, many of us feel isolated and alone in our struggles. When we bring conscious awareness to this idea of a “shared human experience”, we recognize that our struggles are shared amongst our fellow humans. We are not the only ones experiencing pain and discomfort. 

Phew, what a relief, right? That small (but impactful) piece of awareness is called humanity, and it is a core component of self-compassion

“Suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.” – Neff, 2021

It’s what you choose to do with these experiences that make all the difference. For those with the courage to turn pain into purpose, self-compassion is the path to change-promoting insight and motivation.

But, how do we do that? Great question. Before we can implement self-compassion, we need to have a firm understanding of what it is and what it is not. 

At its core, self-compassion is a healthy attitude toward oneself. Essentially, it’s about being kind, understanding, and accepting despite our faults and mistakes. 

… while seeking to do better. 

“Self-compassion has been defined as a self-attitude that involves treating oneself with warmth and understanding in difficult times and recognizing that making mistakes is part of being human.” – Breines & Chen, 2012

The research states that self-compassion has three components, which are exhibited during times of pain and failure (Neff, 2021). We just highlighted one of the three components, humanity. After defining it, can you guess what the other two are? 

Hint: “Oh my, I am so embarrassed. I want to crawl into a hole right now.” 

Can you relate to this thought? What feelings come up for you? Cringe-worthy experiences like this one focus our awareness on the present moment. It is in these moments that we are practicing mindfulness. Yup, without even realizing it! Mindfulness is another component of self-compassion, but here’s the caveat. It’s conscious awareness of what we’re doing, thinking, feeling and experiencing while also being non-judgmental. That inner critic with its overly harsh and judgy tone will have to take a back seat because self-compassion is a much smoother ride on the path to change.

The research supports this, too. Compared to self-criticizers, those who are more self-compassionate experience higher levels of psychological well‐being, which is “associated with the pursuit of realization of one’s true potential and focuses on the optimal functioning of the individual” (Zessin et al., 2015). In a nutshell, people who are self-compassionate are happier overall and function better. They feel capable, well-supported, and satisfied with life. 

Pretty cool stuff, eh? (Sorry, I had to let my Canadian out).

When we use self-compassion rather than self-criticism, our pain becomes the path (or at least, a path). It helps us learn and grow because it creates a safe space for change. It does not anchor us with fear. Picture a path with a very large boulder ahead of you. It is completely blocking your path. There is no way around it. You’re stuck. Your inner critic is that boulder. It does not serve you in any way. It simply stands in your way. Now imagine another path – one that goes around that boulder. That path has some obstacles as well – pebbles, sticks, maybe the odd pothole, but none of these obstacles stops you from moving ahead. That’s the difference. Sure, you see them, but you can move around them. 

Mindfulness also teaches us that it’s okay to be present with feelings of discomfort. Self-compassion is not about pretending that everything is okay. Being positive isn’t always the best approach. Positivity often disguises itself as self-compassion. In fact, if you are struggling and acting like everything is sunshine and rainbows then you’re not really being compassionate at all. You’re not even paying attention.

I encourage you to notice and name your own tendencies for self-criticism. Notice, and name – without judgement of course – the situations that trigger your inner critic. Awareness is an important path to change, especially when that awareness is: 

  1. Non-judgemental
  2. Part of the shared human experience, and
  3. Received with warmth, care and understanding (in other words, self-kindness)

 

The third component of self-compassion is self-kindness

It sounds obvious, but self-kindness is the act of being kind to oneself. It is the antidote to berating ourselves with negative thoughts or being overly harsh, critical, and judgmental when we fail or make mistakes. It’s not about excusing every bad decision we make. Self-kindness is not a free pass for “anything and everything goes”. 

It’s honest, yet decent and nurturing. It’s showing yourself the same kindness and care that you’d give to a best friend or partner, or loved one. When the going gets tough, you still show up. You show up without perfection and you forgive yourself… while seeking to do better

Self-kindness sounds like this: “You’re going to be alright. You’re not a failure. Just take a deep breath, and walk it off. You got this!”

Self-compassion sounds like woo-woo, but in reality it is based in solid neuroscience and psychology. It is a simple yet powerful tool for invoking meaningful change and growth because it fosters a healthier and happier mind, body, and soul. And, when you’re feeling good about yourself, how do you treat your body? Do you do things that make you feel good? I’ll bet you do!

I’ll leave you with one final thought:

You don’t learn from your experience. You learn from processing your experience. – John Dewey

References:

Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 38 (9), 1133-1143.

Neff, K. 2021. Definition and Three Elements of Self Compassion. Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/ 

Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The Relationship Between Self-Compassion and Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 7(3), 340–364. doi:10.1111/aphw.12051 

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Dr. Stefania Tiveron, ND

Dr. Stefania Tiveron, ND

After graduating from McMaster University with an Honours Bachelor degree, Stefania began her health education journey with 5 years of study at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine where she received her Doctor of Naturopathy degree. After five years seeing patients, she realized that she was lacking a crucial skill set. It wasn't enough to simply tell people "what to do." Most people already know what they should be doing, were overwhelmed with conflicting health information, or did not know "how to" align their actions with their goals and values. Information is not enough to change behavior. Health coaches help people bridge the gap between "knowing what to do" and "actually doing it". In other words, a health coach is a catalyst for change. With that in mind, Stefania became a certified Metabolic Optimization Health Coach last year and is currently enrolled in another health coaching certification program (Precision Nutrition Level 2). Half health coach and half naturopathic doctor, Stefania integrates the best of both worlds to help her clients create meaningful and sustainable action plans, break negative patterns and habits, and replace them with healthy ones. The entire process is collaborative, process-focused, and most importantly, rooted in self-compassion. To learn more, check out Dr. Tiveron's site: https://drstefania.com/health-coaching/