Self-compassion. Image of young woman with long dark hair in a messy bun, looking away from the camera towards some trees in the distance.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about “The failure of self-esteem and the rise of self-compassion.” As promised, in this post I will focus on self-compassion.

In the past decade or so, numerous research studies have shown that self-compassion is important for not just mental and emotional health and well-being, but for physical health as well. Why? Because a healthy dose of self-compassion helps us form habits that support good health. So, no—you don’t need to channel your inner drill sergeant in order to eat your vegetables and get to the gym.


What is self-compassion?

In my self-esteem post, I touched on what self-compassion is, mostly to compare and contrast it with self-esteem. Let me expand on that definition here. According to self-compassion researcher and Kristin Neff, author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,” there are three elements to self-compassion:

  • Mindfulness—being aware of negative thoughts, feelings and experiences without judging them or dwelling on them.
  • Common humanity—recognizing that we are all imperfect, and we all suffer.
  • Self-kindness—showing yourself care and understanding when you experience those all-too-human imperfections.

What’s the opposite of self-compassion? Emotional reactivity, isolation, self-judgment and unhealthy perfectionism, all of which have been linked to depression, stress and reduced quality of life.

The stress connection

A 2017 study found that people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better—they have less of a physical stress response when they are stuck in traffic, have an argument with their spouse, or don’t get that job offer—and they spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them.

Why is this important? Because not only does chronic stress directly harm health—the physical responses to stress include spikes in blood pressure and blood sugar along with suppression of the immune system—but if you react strongly to stress, you’re more likely to employ unhealthy short-term coping mechanisms like smoking or numbing your feelings with food or alcohol.

Self-compassion promotes health

The study also found that self-compassionate people are more likely to adopt health-promoting behaviors and maintain them even if they don’t appear to be paying off in the short term. This may be especially important in the face of a health-related setback, like injury, illness or a disappointing lab result, because self-compassion takes the edge off negative emotions—fear, frustration, and disappointment—that might arise. This helps you continue to take good care of yourself instead of getting derailed.

This perseverance is also important for anyone who has a history of chronic dieting, or finds themselves still entangled in “diet culture,” which idealizes thinness and equates it to health or virtue, or even “wellness culture” which like it or not is just a rebranding of diet culture. If you tend to view food and physical activity as means to a thinner end, it’s easy to give up when you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see. Self-compassion can serve as an antidote.

Myths about self-compassion

Self-compassion often gets painted as selfish, lazy, or indulgent, but nothing could be further from the truth. People who are caregivers—by nature or circumstance—often find it difficult to offer themselves the compassion they freely give to others. However, connection with the rest of humanity is a core component of self-compassion, so to fully give to others, you need to give to yourself.

Are you a perfectionist? You may fear that if you are too nice to yourself you’ll accomplish nothing. The truth is that when you make changes out of self-compassion, those changes are more sustainable than changes you make because you feel like you are unacceptable the way you are. You’re also more likely to make daily choices that support long-term well-being, rather than indulging in short-term impulses. That may mean going for a walk instead of crashing on the couch, or putting down your fork when you’re satisfied, not stuffed.

Research shows that self-compassion can increase motivation to change, possibly because it allows us to objectively evaluate areas for improvement and make changes without the threat of self-criticism. Lets say you have type 2 diabetes and your latest blood work shows that you haven’t been managing your blood sugar well. Self-compassion will help you use that information to make changes to support better control going forward. Self-criticism can paralyze you, leaving you unable to change—and possibly ashamed to return to your doctor—leading to bigger health problems.

Becoming self-compassionate

Self-compassion should be easy, since we all want to be happy. Unfortunately—at least in some cases—we also want to avoid danger. In the face of true danger, we go into fight, flight or freeze mode. But when the “danger” is the uncomfortable emotions that rise from our inevitable mistakes or failures, our response can be self-criticism, self-isolation and self-absorption, which gets in the way of doing the things that will make us happier and healthier in the long run. Self-compassion helps us view uncomfortable emotions less of a threat.

So how do you cultivate self-compassion? Start with mindfulness. Unless you pay attention, you may be unaware of the thoughts that play and replay in your head.

  • Practice observing your thoughts—are they compassionate, or critical?
  • Be curious and non-judgmental—criticizing yourself for being self-critical adds insult to injury.
  • Remind yourself often that to err is human, and to forgive, divine.
  • Show yourself kindness in ways that nurture mind, body and spirit. Take time to go for a walk, do some yoga, or prepare a nutritious meal. Incorporate activities that bring you joy, like reading a novel, puttering in the garden, or listening to favorite music.
  • Strengthen connections with people important to you. Think love, not tough love.
More self-compassion resources

In addition to Kristen Neff’s website and book, I highly recommend Christopher Germer’s “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” as well as “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook,” which Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer co-authored.

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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