Simply said, self-compassion is the practice of directing kindness and empathy toward oneself. Neff (2003b), drawing on the works of several Buddhist teachers (such as Salzberg, 1997), defined self-compassion as consisting of three major elements: kindness, a feeling of shared humanity, and mindfulness. A self-compassionate attitude is the result of the interplay between these factors. Self-compassion is important when we are thinking about our own shortcomings, faults, and failings, or when we are facing difficult life conditions that are beyond our control.
Instead of beating ourselves up when we make mistakes or feel inadequate, self-kind people show compassion and empathy. Unfortunately, many individuals have a habit of being quite critical of themselves, saying things like, "You're so stupid and lazy, I'm ashamed of you!" Neither a close friend nor a complete stranger would hear us speak such things. Most individuals say they are nicer to others than to themselves when questioned directly (Neff, 2003a), and it is not uncommon to meet very empathetic people who are also harsh on themselves.
Even when our difficulties are the result of events beyond our control, such as the loss of a job or a vehicle accident, we don't always show ourselves the same compassion we would show a friend in a similar position. Instead of being upset at the world because it doesn't live up to our ideals, we may practice self-kindness and comfort ourselves when we face our grief. The internal dialogue is supportive and uplifting, rather than critical and demeaning.
In order to assist ourselves, we openly and without shame accept our flaws and weaknesses.
Being human means understanding that everyone else is flawed and goes through hardships too. In life, we don't always receive what we desire. We, too, are sometimes prevented from acting in our preferred manner. This is a universal truth that all people must face at some point in their lives. When it comes to flaws, we may be certain that we are not alone. Rather, it is precisely because of these flaws that we can legitimately call ourselves human. But when we think on our own problems and setbacks, we often feel alone and distant from others, with the mistaken belief that "I" am the only one having a tough time of it. There must be something wrong with us, we tell ourselves. This myopia only serves to further alienate us and adds to our anguish. Sometimes it seems like we've forgotten that mistakes and shortcomings are par for the course.
However, when we practice self-compassion, we adopt the viewpoint of a compassionate "other" toward ourselves, broadening our view of who we are and where we're going in life. When we consider the universality of suffering, we are less likely to feel alone. That's why it's important to note the distinction between self-compassion and self-pity. Persons who indulge in self-pity have a "woe is me" mindset, fixated on their own issues and oblivious to the fact that others have comparable challenges. Realizing that one's own pain is shared by everyone else, self-compassion encourages an open and accepting worldview.
Being mindful means facing our unpleasant feelings and ideas head-on, without judgment or evasion (Neff, 2003b). You can't simultaneously turn a blind eye to your suffering and feel empathy for it. The existence of pain may seem clear. How many of us, though, recall that this is a time of pain deserving of compassion when we glance in the mirror and don't like what we see? In a same vein, when things in our lives go wrong, we frequently jump right into figuring out how to fix them, rather than taking the time to acknowledge our feelings or find solace in the fact that we're having a hard time. The ability to practice self-compassion requires an awareness of our own pain.
To practice mindfulness, we must also learn to detach ourselves from our unpleasant emotions and ideas, so that they do not control us (Bishop et al., 2004). Focusing so narrowly on our distress causes us to develop an unhealthy view of ourselves (Frederickson, 2003). (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Mindfulness, on the other hand, creates some distance between us and our unpleasant emotions, allowing us to see things more clearly, get some perspective, and calm down a little (Baer, 2003).