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Self-Compassion: An Effective but Little Utilized Tool That Increases Mental Wellbeing

Dr. Kristin Neff is changing the way we think about mental wellness throughout our lifespan with one radical philosophy—self-compassion. A long-time practitioner of mindfulness, Dr. Neff spent her post-doctoral years studying self-compassion as a psychological concept and using it in her empirical research. 

So what is self-compassion? Well, it’s more radical than it sounds. Originally a Buddisht construct, Dr. Neff defines self-compassion with three components:

  1. Self-kindness & constructive criticism vs. self-judgment & negative criticism
  2. A sense of common humanity vs. self-isolation 
  3. Mindfulness vs. overidentification with thoughts and feelings

According to Dr. Neff, self-kindness refers to being caring towards yourself when times are tough. Instead of judging yourself and trying to maintain a “stiff upper lip,” practicing self-kindness gives you the grace to be human and to comfort yourself when you’re struggling. 

A sense of common humanity is the idea that you are not alone. We are all fallible, perfectly imperfect beings that have shortcomings and make mistakes. Adopting a sense of common humanity allows you to move from living life as an “island” thinking that you alone are imperfect or getting things wrong to being part of the human family. Put another way, self-compassion invites you to react to your own suffering as you do when you see others in distress.

Finally, mindfulness is the practice of being aware in the moment. Mindfulness allows you to exist from minute to minute, fully present without dismissing or obsessing on any one thought, emotion, or situation. 

Practicing self-compassion is taking the natural ability we have to feel empathy for others and the desire we have to alleviate their distress when they are going through a difficult time, and turning it inward. According to Dr. Neff, self-compassion is among one of the most accessible skills we can develop to help our mental health.

Perhaps the most interesting part of her work is that she has been able to empirically demonstrate the effect of self-compassion on patients. Self-compassion has been linked to positive psychological outcomes without the negative consequences of overinflating self-esteem. More recently, self-compassion has been positively associated with well-being and psychological buffering against negative mental health outcomes like depression in older adults. 

Go Deeper: How self-compassionate are you? Take Dr Neff’s self-assessment and find out. 

Want to put self-compassion into practice? Use Dr. Neff’s The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook

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