What is self-compassion?

For many of us, being compassionate towards ourselves may not come naturally, and people often find it difficult to treat themselves kindly. You may have heard the saying “You are your own worst critic”, or we might harshly judge or criticise ourselves, even when we make the slightest mistake. This is the opposite of self-compassion.

Compassion describes certain feelings, thoughts, and behaviours that can be directed towards living things, including yourselves. Two of the leading figures in self-compassion, Paul Gilbert and Kristen Neff, have each defined compassion as:

the recognition and clear seeing of suffering…feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help – to ameliorate suffering – emerges… recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is

Neff, 2011, p10

a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it” (Gilbert, 2009, p. xiii)  “…a sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it..” “Compassionate courage lies in the willingness to see into the nature and cause of suffering – in ourselves, others, and the human condition.

The Compassionate Mind Foundation
  • Four key parts to compassion


    Awareness, attention, and noticing that "suffering" is ocurring. This could be difficult thoughts, emotions, physical pain, fatigue, or all of the above.


    Recognising that these experiences are a normal part of humanity. We are all likely to experience some form of suffering in our lives. Reminding oursevles that we are not alone in our suffering, and the fact we experience pain is not our fault.


    Not trying to ignore the pain and suffering resulting from ME/CFS or criticising ourselves. Treating ourselves with warmth and understanding, and being with this suffering with empathy, care, kindness, and acceptance.


    Exploring ways to help make the pain more bearable or manageable. This could be comforting ourselves or others, engaging in soothing activities, taking action to solve a problem we are facing or all of the above.

  • Why is self-compassion important

    Unfortunately, compassion is unlikely to get rid of or take away symptoms of ME/CFS, or change the fact that life is not as we wanted. However, we may have already discovered that if we struggle with the symptoms, fight them, or try to make them go away, this often just makes things worse and leaves us feeling stuck.

    Self-compassion can help us learn to mindfully notice and accept that in this moment, there is something painful for us. We don’t need to like what is happening, but we can practice caring for ourselves and treating ourselves kindly to reduce the suffering in response to these physical symptoms, difficult and overwhelming moments in our lives, painful thoughts, feelings, or distressing emotions we might experience.

  • Barriers to Self-Compassion

    One of the most difficult things about self-compassion, is that most of us have never learned how to be compassionate to ourselves. However, the more we practice, the more we will turn to self-compassion in moments of suffering, instead of self-criticism, or judgement.

    Sometimes when people think of “self-compassion”, it can be confused with beliefs like, “It’s the same as pitying myself”, or that it might be “soft” or “weak”. Self-compassion is also not the same as disregarding or ignoring what we are less good at, or what we struggle with, or saying “I am the best” or “I’m better than others”. We can show ourselves and others compassion, whilst still acknowledging and learning from mistakes.

    Others might believe, “If I’m kind to myself, I’ll just be lazy”, or perhaps “criticising myself, telling myself off, that’s what really motivates me.” This can make us think that being self-compassionate would be unhelpful or stop us from moving forward in our lives. However, these beliefs are often connected with setting yourself high standards or putting pressure on yourself to be “perfect.” Whilst this might mean we “get things done”, we can also push ourselves too hard, which can be damaging to our physical and emotional wellbeing, creating more fatigue and pain. If we are then unable to meet these high standards, we may criticise yourself for this, for example saying, “You’re so stupid” or “You’re not good enough”, which only adds to suffering.

  • How do I build self-compassion?

    We can practice mindfulness skills, which help us to notice and acknowledge your current emotions and state of mind (Noticing), and to accept and normalise these experiences (Normalising).

    When we notice and acknowledge suffering, there are find different ways to soothe yourself here. Sometimes, when you first start to practise self-compassion, you may experience an increase in difficult emotions. It is important to remember these are not created by the practice, but were likely already there, only now we are recognising them. When we practise self-compassion it can be helpful to remember to normalise the feelings that come up, and remind yourself that you are not on your own in these experiences.

    However, if these feelings are overwhelming, you do not need to try and work ‘harder’ at soothing or fighting these feelings. You can take a step back and give yourself kindness in another way. On the other hand, if the emotions are difficult but workable, you may want to continue with the practice and explore these feelings, thoughts and emotions mindfully, or use a dropping anchor exercise to ground yourself in the present moment. (Please see image below)

    It is natural for self-compassion practices to at times feel overwhelming. Germer (2009) has identified the backdraft, as he calls it, that we can sometimes experience when starting to practise self-compassion. The difficult emotions are not created by the practise but were already there and we are now able to recognise them. When you practise self-compassion meditations at home you will benefit from remembering that:

    • It is normal that difficult feelings may arise. If they do, understand that you are suffering, that you are connected to a wider human experience, you are not on your own and be kind to yourself, as best you can.
    • If these feelings are overwhelmingly strong, you do not need to try and intensify your loving-kindness to combat these feelings. You can always discontinue the practise and give yourself kindness in another way. This can also be an important consideration if you are feeling emotionally ‘numb’.
    • If the emotions are difficult, but workable, and you want to continue the practise, then apply mindfulness to these feelings, thoughts and emotions. You can also use a dropping-anchor meditation to ground yourself in the present moment.