Self-Compassion: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Updated: Feb 14
In recent years, the culture surrounding Valentine’s Day has started to shift—have you noticed it?
In small ways, we’ve begun challenging the stereotype that Valentine’s Day should be reserved exclusively for romantic love. Celebrations like Gal-entine’s Day and Pal-entine’s Day show us that other kinds of love, like platonic, familial, and spiritual, deserve to be celebrated, too.
Expressing our love for others—sending those heartfelt feelings out into the world—is a beautiful thing. But how often do we turn those sentiments inward? How often do we examine what it means to love ourselves?
To put self-love into action, we need to begin with self-compassion. Whether or not you feel practiced in extending compassion to yourself, you probably have many of the tools that already make it possible. In fact, gifting compassion to the self uses the same muscles as gifting it to others; it’s just a matter of tapping into those skills.
Self-Compassion 101: An Introduction
So, what is self-compassion? To answer this question (and many of our later ones, too), we turn to Dr. Kristen Neff. For nearly 20 years, she’s been a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research—we encourage you to check out her website if you want to dive deeper into decades-worth of knowledge!
According to Dr. Neff, understanding self-compassion begins with understanding broader compassion, which is “warmth, caring, and the desire to help a suffering person in some way.”¹ It’s that instinct to offer kindness when someone is going through a difficult time. Can you remember a time you felt compassion for someone else?
This feeling becomes self-compassion when we apply it to ourselves. When we make a mistake, fail, or notice something we don’t like about ourselves, self-compassion instructs us to approach the problem with the understanding that imperfection isn’t exclusive to us. Rather, it’s just part of the human experience.
Imagine how you’d act to a friend who’s feeling down. Odds are, you’d respond with softness— you’d validate their feelings but uplift them, too. You’d let them know how much you care. It’s that same movement toward gentleness that defines self-compassion.
Peeling Back the Layers
Now that we understand the basics, let’s explore the more “complete” definition of self-compassion, as defined by Dr. Neff. There are three components that comprise it.²
Self-kindness. This means facing personal suffering with warmth and understanding, avoiding the tendency to ignore your pain or fall into self-criticism. When practicing self-kindness, it’s important to recognize that difficulties, in all facets of life, are inevitable—that imperfection is unrealistic, and we don’t have to hold ourselves to such an impossible standard.
Common humanity: recognizing that discomfort is more than a universal experience—it actually connects us to others. Isolation, the opposite of common humanity, tells us that difficulty is unique to ourselves. But we don’t have to believe that; we can affirm that being human means making mistakes. It means being imperfect, vulnerable and messy. It’s our bridge to the world around us.
Mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness by accepting the present moment can help us find the right balance between suppressing and exaggerating our negative emotions. To incorporate mindfulness into our self-compassion, we challenge ourselves to observe our discomfort and ask “What am I experiencing right now? What do I need?” It’s a matter of finding equilibrium: too much distance from our feelings and we risk ignoring our pain, but identifying with them too strongly can carry us away with our emotions.
Exploring the Science Behind It All
Self-compassion is a deeply personal endeavor—so it’s no surprise that your brain is your most valuable tool for practicing it. Let’s dive into the research³ that explains what happens inside your head when you apply self-compassion to a situation.
Imposing self-criticism activates your amygdala: the part of your brain that detects threats in the environment. An activated amygdala sends signals to the rest of your body that prepare it for danger: increased blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol. The combination of these messages mobilizes your body’s strength and energy to confront or avoid the oncoming threat—even though the threat is self-inflicted.
Research shows that practicing self-compassion, on the other hand, decreases heart rate and cortisol levels in the body.⁴ When you send love inward, you train your body to respond calmly and openly to stimuli, rather than defaulting to a fight-or-flight response.
Self-compassion also triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone known for its accompanying feelings of trust, safety, and connectedness. Often, we associate oxytocin with social situations, like hugging a loved one, or mother-infant bonding. But whether tender emotions are directed externally or internally, studies show the effects are the same: oxytocin-induced calmness and warmth.
There’s No Better Time than the Present
We can’t change the reality of unexpected discomfort, stress, and difficulty, but we can change how we respond to it. Embracing self-compassion gives us the grace and safety to meet challenges, now and in the future, with less resistance. And like with anything else, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.
This month of love is just the beginning of your self-compassion practice. Gift yourself the kindness and compassion you so readily give to others—you deserve it.